Documentary by Florian Steinbiss & David Eisermann
Studio: International Historic Films 22845
Video: 4:3 full screen color and B&W, all regions
Audio: DD mono
Length: 60 minutes
This German documentary which only just became available on DVD for the first time, reminded me of the Conductors of the Third Reich DVD which we reviewed here not long ago. But this story is more amazing, more improbable and even has humor connected to it – which the other definitely lacked.
The Nazis propaganda campaign during WWII banned all so-called “degenerate music,” and jazz and swing were considered of course about as degenerate as you could get. Musicians were persecuted, “swing kids” were imprisoned in concentration camps, and it was not only impossible to hear any jazz on the normal airwaves but against the law to listen to any broadcasts from the West. Propaganda films showed American black musicians playing and jitter buggers dancing and referred on the soundtrack to the horrors of “nigger jazz.”
Yet behind the scenes Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda hired topflight musicians – some of them Jews – to serve up Nazi propaganda on their English-speaking shortwave broadcasts to the West, backed by the lates swing band arrangements. (Evidently the intent was to make the Allieds even more degenerate than they already were, to aid in their defeat.) They gave the band’s vocalist the name Charlie and called the band Charlie and His Orchestra – though the bandleader was really drummer Fritz Brocksleper, who is interviewed extensively in the film. Over the latest swing tunes Goebbels and his crew created lyrics full of political obscenities, adapting songs such as “Slumming on Park Avenue” to “Let’s Go Bombing on Park Avenue.” The anti-Roosevelt song “FDR Jones” suggested that FDR was Jewish. In between the tunes there were sometimes “horspiel” – dramatic sketches – about Churchill in his bathtub smoking cigars and worrying about the Germans, and so on. The band members were very well paid, were not drafted into the army, and when their instrument cases were inspected at the entrance of the shortwave studios and they had black market foods in them, nothing was said.
They tried to make a commercial record for Deutsche Grammophon in 1943, and to make it sound a little less like Western jazz used a harpsichord instead of piano. The short excerpt heard in the film made me want to have both sides – it sounded influenced by Alec Wilder’s Octet and the original Gramercy Five. However, DGG turned it down as not suitable to the Fuehrer’s music policies. (Most Germans knew absolutely nothing of Charlie and his Orchestra.) As the tide turned against the Nazis, some of the musicians had to work in factories or elsewhere and foreign jazzmen who visited Berlin were sometimes hired to replace them. The Nazi English shortwave programming schedule continued right into the Spring of 1945; it appeared to me they had an inflated idea of the size of their listening audience in the West.
Right after the war ended the musicians played for the U.S. soldiers and nearly all the musicians went on to illustrious postwar musical careers. “Charlie” became “Freddie” and continued as a respected singer. Their collaboration with Goebbel’s propaganda machine is excused with defenses that sound rather similar to those offered by classical musicians who continued to work in the Third Reich. The jazzmen said they weren’t aware what lyrics “Charlie” was singing – his mic was supposedly some distance from them. All they cared about was playing their music that was previously banned, getting well-paid for it and not having to be in the army.
The documentary is of high quality both image and soundwise. Even the B&W historical footage is better quality than much of what is seen on histories of WWII. The occasionally grisly shots accompanying some of “Charlie’s” songs shows that the editing was the work of the makers of the documentary and not the original Nazi cameramen. The DVD happens to be a DVD-R rather than a pressed DVD, and it failed to play in my best Integra 10.5 universal DVD player. However, it worked fine in my Toshiba combo TV and in both of my Macintosh DVD drives. [www.IHFfilm.com]
– John Sunier