For most Americans, the notion of "government-sponsored filmmaking" smacks of propaganda. One thinks of works associated with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, even the most aesthetically interesting of which still served the interests of their political masters. By and large the American government is seen as separate from actual film production. One can cite examples such as The Plow That Broke the Plains or the Why We Fight series, but these were exceptions created as reactions to special circumstances (the Depression, the War).
Thus, the recent re-emergence of the films created for the Marshall Plan and OMGUS film units provides a fascinating look at a moment when the U.S. government actually made a sustained effort to use the medium of film (along with a host of other methods) to sway public opinion in postwar Europe. In working over the past few months to help organize this series, I was struck not only by the inventiveness of so many of the films, but also by the clarity of vision and purpose they consistently expressed. Despite the differences in subject matter, locations, and film styles, the films repeatedly challenge their intended European audiences to realize that, as one film title put it: IT'S UP TO YOU! Marshall Plan funds, personnel, training and machinery can help with the rebuilding and transformation of Europe, but the energy for these changes must come from the Europeans themselves. Indeed, the reticence with which the ERP made its presence felt is one of the films' most distinguishing features. A second major theme that emerges is the need for intra-European unity; border and barrierslinguistic, cultural, ethnicmust be replaced by a new European consciousness that will help the continent avoid the rivalries that led to two disastrous wars in the 20th century alone.
Eventually, the perceived needs of the worsening Cold War overtook the original aims of the Marshall Plan films, and by the mid-Fifties production had effectively stopped. But the 200+ films which still exist are a tribute to a wise, sensitive and wonderfully humanist vision that did so much to shape the postwar world.
Richard Peña, Director, Film Society of Lincoln Center