Dictating Cinema

Kim Jong Il was not the only despot with a passion for the silver screen.

by Jennie Kermode

With the loss of North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong Il this week, the world must say goodbye to one of its most devoted film fans. Kim, who had a famous obsession with Elizabeth Taylor, was fascinated by the cultural power of cinema, calling it “a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction.” Despairing of the poor quality of his country's output, he arranged the kidnapping of one of his favourite South Korean directors, Shin Sang-ok, and his actress wife Choe Eun-hui, keeping them prisoner for several years and ordering them to make films, some of which he co-scripted himself.

Unfortunately for the collaborative projects, Kim and his prisoners had notable artistic differences. The Dear Leader saw no point in wasting time on character-building or sentiment, preferring to get straight into the action. Although few of their works have been seen outside North Korea, they are mostly believed to be monster movies and films about giant robots which uphold the glories of Communism. Kim spend a considerable amount of his country's wealth on the projects and retained his filmmaking ambition after his prisoners escaped.

With his love of Ealing comedies and James Bond, Kim was influenced by cinema as well as attempting to influence it himself. He always denied having seen the parody version of himself in Team America, though its directors insisted they had sent him a copy. But though his approach may seem quirky, he was not the only dictator to think in this way about film.

Like Kim, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin loved the movies. He had a cinema in each one of his official residences and was a particular fan of WS Van Dyke's Tarzan, but his dream was to be a writer, director or producer himself. Early in his career he made several attempts at scriptwriting. In due course, though he delegated many other aspects of the running of the Soviet Union, he took personal responsibility for overseeing the production of every film made there. In this capacity he censored material that he thought was politically inappropriate but also weighed in on an artistic level, ordering re-shoots and sometimes intervening extensively in the editing process.

Fortunately, for all his problems, Stalin knew cinematic talent when he saw it. Though his suspicions about Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein's politics would have seen anybody else sent to Siberia, the director was allowed to keep on working, producing classics like Strike and Battleship Potemkin. Sadly they fell out over part two of Ivan The Terrible because the dictator had come to identify so strongly with the central character that he disputed Eisenstein's take on the historical record (it is worth noting that, in Russian, Ivan's epithet means not so much 'terrible' as 'awe-inspiring'). Stalin also complained that Ivan's beard was too long and there was too much kissing. He had run out of patience with amorous filmmakers when scriptwriter Aleksei Yakovlevich Kapler had the audacity to romance his daughter.

Adolf Hitler, too, was a cineaste, a great fan of Fritz Lang despite the anti-totalitarian stance that Lang took in films like Metropolis. He asked the director to become he head of his new film unit, but Lang, who was half Jewish, fled the country. Although he took a great interest in the artistic aspects of film, Hitler made no attempt to get involved directly, but did work with Goebbels to develop the German film industry and try to set up a star system that could rival Hollywood. Probably his greatest success was in advancing the career of Leni Riefenstahl, director of the visually stunning (albeit thematically disturbing) Triumph Of The Will, but of course the short-lived nature of his regime left her high and dry after it collapsed and she struggled to find support elsewhere.

Under Hitler, film criticism was banned outright – not so much as a kind gesture to filmmakers but as part of the wider crackdown on intellectuals. Film production was nationalised and, as long as they produced the sort of content the state approved of, filmmakers were well funded. Hitler personally arranged tax breaks for successful stars, partly as a way of encouraging them to stay in Germany after Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich left for America.

In the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos considered cinema an essential propagandist's tool. His taste in films was rather closer to Kim's, but he knew what his people liked, sharing their hankering for the country's golden age of B-movie action flicks in the Fifties. The pristine reputation of his New Society was maintained simply by setting those films in the past. Like Stalin, Marcos was a bit of a prude and tried to repress the popular sexploitation genre, but devious filmmakers found loopholes in the rules and naked starlets were simply replaced by women in clinging, wet clothes.

Marcos established the Film Academy of the Philippines in an attempt to censor but also to cultivate the cinematic art. He felt he owed a personal debt to the cinema because his wife Imelda had at one point been an aspiring but sought-after young actress and he has stolen her away from what could have been a promising career. Their daughter Imee went on to establish the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines to fund and develop independent film, often challenging her father's rules in the process.

It's easy to see the usefulness of film in propaganda, but why does cinema hold such a strong personal attraction for dictators? It has often been theorised that megalomania and creative ambition come from the same place. Where might some top Hollywood producers be today if they hadn't made it in the movie business?

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