Alfred Hitchcock's French Films and the Limits of Propaganda

About Propaganda

To make such an assessment, we must first have a working definition of propaganda. And a number of competing definitions are readily at our disposal, some of which seem well suited for dealing with cinema. For example, there is Jacques Ellul's: "In propaganda, we find techniques of psychological influence combined with techniques of organization and the envelopment of people with the intention of sparking action " (xiii.) So far, so good -- Hitchcock was well established by 1944 as a master of the psychological film, and widely known as the best organized and most systematic of all directors.

Robert Jackell goes to the historical roots of the matter in noting that "The term 'propaganda' has distinctly religious origins. On 22 June 1622, Pope Gregory XV (1621-23) issued the Papal Bull Inscrutabili Divinae establishing the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide" (1.) From this specific origin in the Counter-Reformation, propaganda has gone on to become a more general phenomenon: "it aims at persuading large masses of people about the virtues of some organization, cause, or person" (Jackall 2.) That sounds rather innocuous, not at all suggesting a campaign of lies and half truths used in order to demonize an opponent, which is how psychologist Sam Keen conceives of propaganda in his Faces of the Enemy. Keen analyzes a considerable collection of posters and other types of visual art to demonstrate how, for example, Nazi Germany depicted its "enemy" (the Jews, the Communists, the British, the Americans, etc.) as "rapist, desecrator of women and children" (76), devil (37), and greedy criminal (73), whereupon, once World War II began, the Allies proceeded to depict Germany in exactly the same fashion.

Marbury B. Ogle, in his Public Opinion and Political Dynamics, sees propaganda as persuasion in general: "Propaganda is any effort to change opinions or attitudes…. The propagandist is anyone who communicates his ideas with the intent of influencing his listener" (cited in Ellul xi.) Ellul criticizes this definition as overly simplistic, because it "would include the teacher, the priest, indeed any person conversing with another on any topic" (xii.) Perhaps that is so. But why shouldn't teachers and priests be included -- or filmmakers, for that matter?

Harold D. Lasswell, in his article "Propaganda," widens the parameters as well, and adds an artistic element: "Propaganda in the broadest sense is the technique of influencing human action by the manipulation of representations. These representations may take the spoken, written, pictorial or musical form" (reprinted in Jackall 13.) Since the cinema uses all four of these types of representations, a filmmaker would seem to be a quadruple propagandist, almost without trying.

And finally, Webster's New World Dictionary defines the word "propaganda" as "any widespread promotion of particular ideas, doctrines, etc.," pointing out that the word has the same root as "propagation," i.e., the spreading of certain opinions or concepts as if they were plants being grown in a farmer's field.

By all of these definitions, virtually any writer, artist or film director could be called a propagandist, or, for that matter, called upon explicitly to produce propaganda.

But does it work like that in real life, especially when the demands of wartime propaganda are in play?

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