"Great men do not always shine for their intelligence or their
talents, and rarely for their goodness of soul; but they emanate
a tremendous energy and exert incredible influence on every creature...
All moral forces put together can do nothing against them; the better part
of humanity struggles in vain to warn that they are deceivers or deceived
- they conquer the masses all the same" (Goethe).
This quotation from the German writer's autobiography sheds disturbing light on the frequently obscure relationship between those in power and the masses. Its message becomes even more dramatically relevant if placed in the context of the horrors perpetrated under totalitarian regimes in Europe in this century. At first sight cinema entertainment, with its collective rites, would seem to be extraneous to such a political equation and belong only to the area of leisure, providing merely an escape from reality.
Yet it was the cinema, from the 1920's to the outbreak of the Second World War, which was the most fertile ground for the reconstruction and transformation of reality. The cinema proved itself a medium of mass communication which could function as a social adhesive between classes - cinema audiences came from every kind of background - and in its all-embracing communication process levelled distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow culture. Indirectly, too, via feature films, the cinema took upon itself the task of drawing a picture of the world, how people lived and related to one another, a picture supplied especially to the poorer classes, whose horizons were inevitably narrower.
In the social context in which fascism took over in Italy and Hitler seized power in Germany, the cinema provided a unique opportunity for those who held power: it could provide models and patterns for creating a complex portrait of society, complete with desirable life-styles and ideal attitudes for social and political choices. The cinema was a perfect instrument - in the form of the Istituto Luce or Goebbels' propaganda machine - for striking people's emotions and imaginations and simplifying ideas into uniform leitmotivs: the "foreign enemy" and its counterpart the "father-head of state" were personae repeated obsessively from one dictatorship to another.
Persuasion did not only filter through the propaganda fiction features, which were anyway few in number, all told, but also into the very information obtainable in cinemas and town squares - the Istituto Luce reached everywhere with its fleet of mobile cinemas. Moving pictures were the ideal prop for the consensus machine, as they were able to push whole peoples into military and economic enterprises demanding sacrifice and a common purpose, if not their underlying ideals.
So the scenario imagined by Horkheimer and Adorno in their Dialettica dell'Illuminismo (1947), to some extent too pessimistically catastrophic, may not be actually tried and tested today by the subliminal effects of mass societies' information media, but it certainly serves to place cinema entertainment and its end use in Europe in the 1930's and '40's in their proper context, in which the interests of power were dangerously entwined in constructing collective knowledge.