When Uncle Sam called the shots

'Selling Democracy' turns a lens on the propaganda films of the Marshall Plan - and how they speak to today's reconstruction and recovery efforts

''The Story of Koula'' is among the films featured in the new series at the Brattle Theatre. ''The Story of Koula'' is among the films featured in the new series at the Brattle Theatre.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / March 8, 2009
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"All art is to some extent propaganda," George Orwell famously wrote. But what about the reverse - to what extent can propaganda be art? As regards film, that question usually gets posed in terms of totalitarian societies: Sergei Eisenstein's agitprop classic of Soviet cinema, "Battleship Potemkin," say, or Leni Riefenstahl's documentary "Triumph of the Will," about the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremburg.

What about when the propaganda is made by a democracy? More specifically, what about when the democracy is the United States? Well, it tends then to get called "public diplomacy" rather than "propaganda." But the basic question remains, and it's implicitly raised by the series "Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan, 1948-1953."

Sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Boston and Harvard's Center for European Studies, the series is presented by the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It opens at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, this Thursday and runs through March 17. Accompanying the series are a number of contemporaneous feature films, including Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair" and Jacques Tourneur's "Berlin Express."

The two dozen films in the series include documentaries, fiction films, docudramas, even animation.

"There are some real masterpieces among the films we're going to show," Sandra Schulberg said in a telephone interview last month. A veteran film and television producer, Schulberg curated the series, which she's previously presented at venues ranging from the Berlin Film Festival to the New York Film Festival.

" 'Houen Zo!' " about the rebuilding of Rotterdam, "won an award at the Cannes Film Festival," Schulberg said. " 'The Story of Koula' is certainly a work of art. The animation works are just extraordinary. They're really beautiful and very witty."

The series represents a cross-section of the 282 films extant that the US government funded to make the case for the Marshall Plan with European audiences. Officially known as the European Recovery Program, the Marshall Plan sent $13 billion to Western European governments to aid economic recovery after World War II.

Though funded by the United States, the films were made by European filmmakers. Schulberg noted that Marshall Plan officials strove for an upbeat and forward-looking tone in the films. Officials drew a lesson from the way German audiences had rejected a 1948 film, "Hunger," made by the US military, which blamed postwar conditions on Germany.

An estimated 50 million people saw the films. Until recently, few viewers were Americans. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act prohibits the domestic screening of US government-funded films that were made to disseminate political messages abroad. In 1990, US Senator John Kerry wrote legislation to waive the prohibition as regards the Marshall Plan films. He did so at the urging of the late Albert Hemsing, the final head of the Marshall Plan Motion Picture Section, and a Brewster resident.

In a recent telephone interview, the Brattle's creative director, Ned Hinkle, recalled his eagerness when Schulberg approached him about showing the films.

"I'm immediately attracted to historical-document film," Hinkle said, "and seeing how film has been used in the past to change public opinion or how it reflects public opinion. Certainly the prospect of showing a set of films used for propaganda by the US in a context we're not used to, well, this is a whole different cultural milieu. It's really interesting to have the opportunity to see these films."

Schulberg's connection to the films is personal as well as professional. Her father, Stuart Schulberg, served as deputy director and later director of the Paris-based Marshall Plan Motion Picture Section. (Schulberg's family background in film is impressive. Her grandfather B.P. Schulberg headed Paramount Pictures; and Budd Schulberg, her uncle, is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "On the Waterfront," among other films.)

Schulberg first learned of the Marshall Plan films' existence from a professor of broadcast history who was researching a biography of her father. "We met in Washington and sat down together to watch them for the first time in the spring of 2003, at the National Archives," Schulberg recalled.

"President Bush had just announced 'Mission Accomplished.' For the first time the press was reporting on the reconstruction plan [in Iraq]. So I'm watching these films about American aid to Europe after the war with an awareness of Iraqi reconstruction and infrastructure and all the wide range of issues involved with economic recovery - supposedly post-conflict! - and I found the films eerily relevant. You couldn't be there at that particular moment in time watching those films and not feel you'd been transported back into the future."

Watching those first few films, Schulberg said, launched her on "an effort I'm still at five, almost six years later."

Schulberg built on the work of researcher Linda Christenson, with support from the George C. Marshall Foundation. The more Schulberg dug, the more she learned - and found out how hard it was to learn. Many of the films lacked credits, and records were hard to come by. New films keep being discovered. In November, while in Switzerland interviewing the former head of the Marshall film program's German unit, Schulberg learned of three previously unlisted films.

It's believed that more than 300 were made, but no one can say for sure. For a filmography of those movies that have so far been documented, go to And then there's the issue of preserving those films that have been found. Schulberg has spent several years unsuccessfully seeking funds to digitize the films and make them available to the public on disc.

"They didn't even keep a log of what they were doing!" Schulberg said of the Marshall Plan Motion Picture Section. "The more I began to look at it, quite apart from my father's participation in it, the more I began to think this was an extraordinary effort at public diplomacy, a phrase that didn't exist at the time the films were made."

Asked to distinguish between public diplomacy and propaganda, Schulberg noted with a laugh that "one of the ways that the distinction has been made is our side does public diplomacy and their side does propaganda. I think the more interesting question is to what extent a piece of media offers access to different points of view. And to what extent it builds in a level of persuasion. That's always there, of course, but to what extent it does that in a forthright manner and invites you to analyze it, or whether it really bludgeons you. There's a whole spectrum of approaches."

Schulberg noted, for example, that the Marshall Plan authorities had no political litmus test for filmmakers. "They tended to be European leftists. The team that made 'Island of Faith,' a very stirring docudrama about the citizens of a Dutch island reclaiming their land, were avowed communists."

So much of the enduring interest of the films, Schulberg suggested, relates to that basic issue of where art and propaganda do, or do not, intersect. "How do you talk to the public, how do you engage it?" she said. "My aim in showing the films is not to make pronouncements but invite people to look at them. They're surprisingly relevant - and entertaining. They were made to be shown in movie theaters [as part of a program preceding a standard feature film]. So they had to engage people, or filmgoers would simply make a point of showing up late and missing them!"

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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