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Poor conditions for Nazi propaganda in Norwegian World War II cinemas

Thomas V. H. Hagen says that cinemas became an arena that contributed to preserving democratic values during the second world war. His new doctoral thesis opposes earlier studies about cinemas in Norway under the Nazi dictatorship.

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Thomas Hagen i Vrimlehallen på campus Kristiansand, photo.
Earlier this year, Thomas Hagen defended his thesis titled "Folkefellesskap, forlystelse og hverdagsmotstand: Kino i Norge 1940–1945" (people community, entertainment and everyday resistance: cinemas in Norway 1940-1945) at the University of Agder (Photo: Atle Christiansen)

"The cinema was not just for entertainment. It had a large political and social significance during the war. Cinemas became a bastion of resistance for oppressed Norwegians," Thomas V. H. Hagen says.

He recently defended his doctoral thesis titled "Folkefellesskap, forlystelse og hverdagsmotstand: Kino i Norge 1940–1945" (People community, entertainment and everyday resistance: cinemas in Norway 1940-1945) at the University of Agder. The thesis shows that the cinema got a new political significance during the war, not as a German propaganda centre but as an arena for resistance against the occupant.

The cinema as a meeting place

The new doctor has studied the cinema as a meeting place and informal arena of discussion as viewed by propagandists (NS and Germans), politicians, the cinema audience and the cinema industry. Hagen has not analysed form and content of individual movies, nor has he studied reviews and reception of movies shown during the war.

"I have studied the cinema as a place and as a business, and as a topic of discussion and area of politics. During the war, the cinema was a place for secret conversations. That way, it functioned as a democratic place of resistance," the researcher says.

The Norwegian movie magazine Norsk Kinoblad, illegal newspapers, archives from the Norwegian government’s movie directorate, the Reich Commissariat’s culture department and German intelligence reports have been some of Hagen’s most important sources.

"The goal was to create new knowledge of the cinema’s importance for Norwegian and German forces in Norway during the war," Hagen says.

Booed German agents

Slik så vignetten for Filmavisen ut under krigen.

The opening for the Norwegian cinema newsreel Filmavisen during the war.

German intelligence reports show that the German intelligence agency used to place agents in the cinemas during showings. Any outbursts or incidents during showings were extensively reported and documented.

"If there were German agents present, the Norwegian cinema audience would be aware of it. If any pre-movies or commercials containing German propaganda were shown, the audience would boo loudly. When no Germans were present, there was less booing. There was no point in booing when the people they were booing were not there,” Hagen says. 

Everyday resistance

Instead of the traditional term "holdningskamp" (demonstrating defiance), Hagen uses the word "hverdagsmotstand" (everyday resistance) to capture the ideologic fight in the cinema. The term is based on the anthropologist James C. Scott’s work and his theories about public resistance.

"’Hverdagsmotstand’ is the most basic form of resistance. It is spontaneous, eludes the government’s control and is dependent on having a common area. The resistance was expressed through obstinacy towards the occupant’s command, as a silent protest during movie showings but also through loud booing in the cinema,” Hagen says.

The everyday resistance was usually symbolic and could be expressed in conversations where the content was hidden from the rulers. Slander and verbal character assassinations that undermined people with authority and power were common.

Inspired the community

"The question is if ‘hverdagsmotstand’ should be seen as a starting point for other forms of resistance against the occupant. It gathers people, creates a sense of community and can inspire to doing other forms of resistance,” Hagen says.

Hagen also points out that the illegal press expressed what he calls "hverdagsmotstand" towards the German occupant.

"Among other things, this was expressed through the illegal press’ encouragements of boycotting cinemas,” he says.

Hagen believes that this type of resistance had a larger role than what studies so far have emphasised.

Opposing cinema history

The standard work about Norwegian movie and cinema history is "Det store tivoli" from 1967 and later editions, written by Sigurd Evensmo. Evensmo’s main conclusion is that the cinema was entertainment and not an important part of the so-called culture battle against the Germans and Nasjonal Samling (NS).

"Many researchers have followed in Evensmo’s footsteps and copied his perspectives on the culture battle during the war. However, my findings oppose the main points of the Evensmo tradition," Hagen says.

He refers to how the Germans wavered, tried out different things and knew little about Norway and Norwegian culture. That is why the Germans had to rely on Norwegians’ knowledge of the country.

NS controlled the cinema

"That is why Norwegian NS politicians led cinema politics during the war. The Germans did not have any systematic propaganda plan for Norwegian cinemas, as the Evensmo tradition states," Hagen says.

The occupant put more work into propaganda in theatres, architecture, radio, newspapers and literature. The researcher believes this is because the cinema market in Norway was small, although there were around 300 cinemas across the country.

"German authorities were more occupied with providing German soldiers with the option of watching entertaining movies than them being propaganda," Hagen says.

News and NS propaganda

A regular programme for a movie showing during the war was like this: First, a German or Norwegian newsreel would be shown, then a cultural movie, commercial with NS propaganda and finally the main movie. The newsreels contained positive news about Germany and the war’s development. The majority of the main movies were German, and, according to the researcher, most of them were entertainment movies.

"Usually, it was the newsreel and NS commercial that contained propaganda that the Norwegian audience reacted to," Hagen says.

There were no Norwegian television broadcasts during the war. Trial broadcasts did not start in Norway until 1954, and regular broadcasts started in 1962.

"This means that the cinema had a monopoly on motion picture news coverage during the war. This is an important explanation to why the audience did not stop going to the cinema even if they knew they would be exposed to Nazi propaganda. Furthermore, visits to the cinema could be used to air out frustrations towards the occupant and NS," Hagen says.

Hagen has completed the PhD programme at the Faculty of Humanities and Education at the University of Agder. The PhD education was funded by ARKIVET Peace and Human Rights Centre where Thomas Hagen works as historian and responsible of documentation.