Under the Nazis it became difficult for most black people to make a living. Although not always enforced, laws excluded them from many areas of employment, most notably in entertainment, and prejudice encouraged by the regime made it difficult to get by in other fields as well. During the war, big-budget films offered one way to get around restrictions and earn some income. Additionally, because these films brought together a number of black actors, they offered brief opportunities to seek safety in solidarity. But taking part in the films also required them to play roles that conformed to demeaning stereotypes that supported the regime’s goals.
These stills are from the 1943 film Münchhausen, an escapist blockbuster based on a 1785 book detailing the fantastical fictional adventures of the eponymous baron. The film takes advantage of its eighteenth-century setting with lavish displays of courtly life in Germany, Russia, and Turkey.
The need for black extras to fill out the Turkish palace with exotic servants provided opportunities for a number of black Germans, including Marie Nejar and Theodor Wonja Michael. Their elaborate costumes (and lack thereof) evoked a generically orientalist fantasy. The presence of black actors, however, did not prevent the director from casting a white man as a courtly Moor; the impermanence of the makeup is used as a comedic point.
Source: Münchhausen, directed by Josef van Báky (Berlin: Ufa, 1943), via YouTube.com.
Playing roles in Nazi films (1943) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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