The English Disease: The Health Education Film as Nazi Propaganda

By Michael Sappol

Deformed unfortunates trudge back and forth, in a darkly-lit procession, over a map of Great Britain as the soundtrack sounds anxious notes of alarm. That extravagantly horrific scene introduces the Die englische Krankheit (The English Disease), a 13-minute black-and-white health education film, produced during wartime, under the supervision of Nazi authorities, by Universum Film AG (“UFA”), the largest German film studio of the time. After a censorship board approved it as suitable for adults and children, it premiered in Berlin in April of 1941.

Made under conditions of mass mobilization—at a time when Great Britain and the Third Reich were battling fiercely over the skies of England and Germany and at sea in the Mediterranean—Die englische Krankheit is an odd specimen, an eccentric example of the wayward features that sometimes accrued to instructional and health education films in the Nazi period. With its peculiar, almost grafted-on, opening—strident Nazi propaganda pumped up with gloomy lighting, disturbing music, and a scene of grotesque deformity—for a few moments, but only a few, Die englische Krankheit looks like it will dwell in the tonal register of the UFA and Universal Pictures scary horror films that were so popular in the 1920s and 30s. (Great Britain, the enemy, as the site and spreader of monstrous disfigurement).

But then it settles down to do the work that health films typically do: show the treatment and prevention of disease. In the case of Die englische Krankheit that means shifting from horror to animated scientific diagrams, x-ray images and sunny scenes of children playing outdoors: the “English Disease” was rickets, a disease that could be easily prevented by a regular diet of nutritious food, vitamin D supplements, and plentiful exposure to sun.

Die englische Krankheit can be seen on NLM’s Medical Movies on the Web, along with an essay by film scholar, Anja Laukötter (Max Planck Institute, Berlin). Leonhard Link supplied the German and English subtitles.

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.