East German newsreels and educational films can be funny, if a bit pathetically so. A miner supposedly digs four times his coal quota: "From this time on," the soundtrack heralds, "the men felt a new relationship towards their work"; a paternal teacher spins a globe, asks a cherub to "show us where children are not so well off," then summarizes, "Yes! Where capitalism dominates! A good answer!"
Of course, clumsy, naive doctrinairism is more than a joke; the desperate seriousness of the material compiled in Wolfgang Kissel's Strictly Propaganda adds metaphysical terror to laughable, dated inculcation. With far more at stake than Reefer Madness or The Atomic Cafe, Kissel's documentary is an entertainingly scary reminder that for 40 years, 17 million people were methodically manipulated in the name of East German communism. Assembled chronologically and without narration or interruptions, Propaganda spans a history from cheerful post-World War II housewives' clearing rubble from East Berlin streets, to cautious Cold War customs officials' detaining "enemies of the republic [who] never stop trying to exert a bad influence on the consciousness of our workers' (in this case, a kindly-looking gentleman involved in a "swindle exchange rate"), to Erich Honecker's waltzing with his wife at a state function while Mikhail Gorbachev looks on.
Clips trumpet factories, streets and cities named after Stalin. Promos contrast a gleaming state-run department store with shoddy private enterprise. Soldiers visit delighted kindergarteners; girls playing volleyball is the segue into a sex-education short; '60s training films for teachers deal with potential counterrevolutionaries.
In fact, much of the propaganda is directed at children -- an unnerving practice, albeit a deviously logical one. If the hundreds of thousands of Young Pioneers are any indication, the tactic worked disturbingly well. Emphasizing fitness, duty and allegiance to an authoritarian regime, these uniformed, lederhosen'd arm-saluters don't resemble Scouts one bit, even with their Olympic jamboree.