Reel Liberation

As a Florida schoolboy, Gary Nurkiewicz used to take his dad's Nazi propaganda films for show- and-tell. "They're 16-millimeter, so it was easy enough to just throw them on the classroom projector and go for it," he says.

Four decades later, Nurkiewicz realized that the reels he'd nonchalantly lugged around in his lunch bag were irreplaceable artifacts.

From 1939 to 1943, the Ministry of Propaganda in Nazi Germany oversaw the production of fifty short films championing the military victories and ideology of the Third Reich. Known to scholars as the Degeto Weltspiegel series, named after the project's crossed-daggers logo (Degeto means "dagger"; Weltspiegel means "world mirror"), the films were sold cheaply in pharmacies, department stores and toy shops throughout Germany.

Until this year, only 29 Degeto Weltspiegel recordings were thought to have been preserved after the war, all of them stored in this country's National Archives or Library of Congress. Nurkiewicz's collection adds another dozen recordings, including the only known copies of six episodes.

The president of the Educational Film Library Association recently appraised Nurkiewicz's collection at $65,000, and the Denver psychotherapist is now looking for a buyer, although he won't allow the films to be used as recruiting tools by this country's self- proclaimed Soldiers of the Fourth Reich. "The neo-Nazis in this country would certainly love to have them, but it doesn't matter how much money they offer me. I'm not selling this archive to American Nazis," he says. "My desire is only to find a place for them in an educational setting where the films will be used for the study of history, because I believe they are such a good example of what continues to happen in attempts to manipulate the masses through the misuse of power."

The silent, black-and-white newsreel-style shorts were meant for private home viewing and were accompanied by texts to be read aloud as the films were screened. Number five in the series, Danzig ist Wieder Deutsch ("Danzig Is German Again"), released in October 1939, heralds the conquest of Poland. It depicts German riflemen riding in motorcycle sidecars, Hitler dressed in a gray field coat standing tall in a jeep, and columns of captured Polish Jews destined for concentration camps.

"The camera forces us to look into appalling faces, faces distorted by hatred and in which every meanness has accumulated its filth," the narration reads. "These pictures reveal an inferno of racial inferiority and decadence."

The films were brought back from the war by a G.I. who was the brother-in-law of a woman who worked in a manufacturing plant owned by Nurkiewicz's great-uncle, Ignatius Nurkiewicz, a well-known financial supporter of the Polish underground. The G.I. gave Nurkiewicz's family the films as trophies of war years before Gary was born. "They were passed down to me, and they were always just sort of laying around somewhere, wherever I lived," he says.

Four years ago, Nurkiewicz decided to transfer the images to videotape because he suspected the 16-millimeter film was beginning to degrade. "In the process of doing that, I also begin to gradually research the background of the films, and I learned they might be quite rare, so I had them appraised. I thought they might be worth $5,000 to a collector of Nazi memorabilia, at the most." When he received the appraiser's report, Nurkiewicz says, he was "quite surprised."

Nurkiewicz is currently negotiating with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based international Jewish human-rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Richard Trank, a filmmaker with the Center, says the newly discovered Weltspiegel episodes would be excerpted in documentaries and probably displayed in their entirety in the Museum of Tolerance. However, Trank says he's not sure the center will be able to meet Nurkiewicz's asking price of $43,000.

"We're a nonprofit institution, and the amount of money he's asking is pretty sizable," Trank says. "It's certainly an interesting collection, but I'm not quite certain what will end up happening."

Nurkiewicz says that if the deal falls through, he will "seriously consider" donating the films to a Colorado museum and taking the tax writeoff.

Until he makes a decision, the reels are being stored in a climate-controlled vault in a local photo lab.

One of them, U-Boote im St.-Lorenz-Strom, contains dramatic footage of a German submarine crew torpedoing a tanker in the St. Lawrence River, which flows between the United States and Canada.

"Operational cruise against America!" the narration begins, coinciding with a shot of the bow of a submarine slicing through surface waves. "This is a tremendous task, evidenced by the length of the journey, which lasts several weeks. Time, however, passes swiftly. On Sundays, there are genuine Berlin-style pancakes." Smiling German submariners deep-fry balls of dough and then play cards. "In the mess, they are playing one continuous card game of skat after another."

The mood of the episode then sobers. "Finally, the area of operation has been reached. The first convoy is in sight. Alert! Dive!" Dinner plates slide down a steel countertop as the submarine submerges. "The sub is thrusting straight down into the depths. Propeller nose at 60 degrees! A destroyer is chasing the submarine. Depth charges are exploding."

Chess pieces rattle off a chessboard from the force of an underwater explosion. "Now, utmost calm needs to be maintained in eluding the pursuers while stealing silently away." The next scene was filmed hours later. It shows the Canadian shore viewed through the submarine's periscope.

"Now the sub is situated between the banks of the river and the convoy," the narration continues. "The torpedoes are being prepared. Each eel [nickname for a torpedo] receives a hearty 'Cheerio' on its stout belly." Submariners fingerpaint a sarcastic greeting in the grease smeared across the side of a torpedo, then load the missile into a propulsion chute.

"A big, unwieldy tanker is poised in the sights. Fire! Detonation! That eel was a match!"

The final scene in the four-minute film is back on the surface. A tanker ship burns on the horizon, slowly sinking, billowing massive clouds of oily smoke. "Convoy and destroyer are out of sight. They have left that tanker to its fate. For a short time, all is clear. The radio officer is telegraphing the success story. The crew is catching a well-deserved breath of fresh air. The men have grown stately beards during the long journey."

Another episode in Nurkiewicz's collection, The Fuhrer's Headquarters, depicts Hitler and his generals in a command center during the early hours of the Blitzkrieg invasion of Poland. "This is a power station of immense spiritual and technical energies, as they have never before been conglomerated at one place on Earth," the narration book reads. "A card table, several seating accommodations. The picture is reminiscent of the rooms in farmhouses in which Frederic the Great used to gather the generals, making the decisions. From here, the orders, the ingenious plans, are going out."

"That film makes my heart ache, because my family lost a sizable and valuable piece of land as a result of the Blitzkrieg," says Nurkiewicz, whose paternal grandmother lived a few hours outside of Krakow in the fall of 1939. "I've never been able to recover the land, because it fell within the expanded Ukraine border after the war."

The Weltspiegel films present the invasion of Poland as a just reclamation rather than a conquering. In the same vein, they present Hitler as a superhero wielding "the German sword of vengeance," effecting payback for the criminal wrongs heaped upon his people following Germany's surrender in World War I.

Nurkiewicz believes that President Bush is capitalizing upon the American public's emotional response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in much the same way Hitler capitalized upon the German public's outrage over the Treaty of Versailles. "Bush is incrementally positioning himself as a dictator, and he's using modern propaganda to further his agenda," Nurkiewicz says.

"That's why I want to make sure these films enter the public domain, because if you look carefully at how they use images and language, you can see they mirror what's happening right now in America. The Department of Homeland Security -- that sounds exactly like the language of the Ministry of Propaganda. People need to examine these films and realize this has happened before."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse