“In short, completely normal.”
A great deal of how the Third Reich presented itself and how we have come to know it is visual. Early on, the Nazis understood the power of one or two well-documented incidents to suggest a sweeping movement, and soon the public followed their fabricated reality. The Nazis were especially helped by the rise of photography, whose “truth” even in its then early stages could be slyly manipulated (it’s sobering to imagine what they’d have done with Photoshop). In fact, Nazism without photography, still and moving, is simply unimaginable. To those of us external to the Third Reich, the popularized and mainstream images have come down whole, producing the impression of an overnight mass movement, evil forces on the march. It’s to the credit of several new films about the era – all, significantly, made by Germans – that they begin to mosaic this deceptive whole into its constituent features, to give a sense of smaller and even individual viewpoints.
The complications of the German relationship to the Third Reich remain many and still to be explored. These new films reflect not only an effort to grapple with the regime itself, but to do so in the context of the post-1989 Germany. Immediately following World War II, Germans on both sides of what became the Iron Curtain set about cleaning up, rebuilding, and making their lives again. It’s a bit simplistic, but in shorthand terms each Germany had its compensations: the Russian-controlled East Germans saw themselves as the true anti-fascists and the West Germans focused, with much success, on their Wirschaftswunder (the economic miracle). Appropriate guilt and atonement for the Holocaust have, understandably, dominated the German reaction to the Third Reich. Buried beneath this and largely unaddressed was the effect German acquiescence had on the average citizen and why they registered so little protest. Only recently have Germans begun to consider the devastations of, for example, the firebombings in Hamburg and Dresden, to try to formulate an analysis that includes, absolutely, the Holocaust, but what exactly went on outside the camps as well.
According to a fiftyish German acquaintance, “As a little girl no one said anything, but I just knew something very bad happened.” Discussions proceeded in fits and starts from the 1950s to the 1970s, spurred most dramatically by the mid-1980s screening of the mini-series Heimat (the word doesn’t have a direct translation in English, but is an amalgam of “home” and “homeland,” conveying more than anything else a spiritual connection to the very land itself). This short and rather bare-bones background is crucial to understanding the circumstances in which the following films have been made.
Unfortunately, Sophie Scholl: The Last Days (directed by Marc Rothemund) has a great subject but veers off course, presenting Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) nearly as an action heroine. Scholl and her brother, Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) were active and courageous members of the “White Rose,” a resistance group. Along with their friend and confederate Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter), they were arrested, tried, and summarily executed. During the lengthy interrogation, Sophie Scholl reportedly showed enormous courage, attempting to protect other members of the group. Though the scenes with her Nazi inquisitor are apparently based on documentary records, Jentsch’s acting tinges them with a generic I-am-woman-hear-me-roar feminism that can’t have been accurate for the time. So overblown are the trial scenes that they take dramatic license nearly to the realm of DWI. The final pre-execution scene shows the Scholls and Probst in a three-way, all-better-now hug that makes absolutely no sense. To keep you on the Scholls’ side (why on earth wouldn’t you be?), Sophie Scholl: The Last Days leaves no sentimental stone unturned, weakening the actually quite compelling case of the Scholls, their bold resistance and printing of documents one of the few indications of individual sensibilities at a time of cultish devotion.
Sophie Scholl provoked a kind of epiphany for Traudl Junge, the subject of the startling and first-rate documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. Made shortly before 82-year-old Miss Junge’s death in 2002, directors André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer simply let her tell the tale of her role as one of Hitler’s most trusted secretaries to the camera. Junge joined the Führer’s staff only months before its demise. (A literal translation of the German title and idiom Im Toten Winkel, would be “in the dead corner.”) She lived in the Reich’s Chancellery bunker and witnessed the very last days of the regime. Though Junge was somber and sobered by what she discovered about her “exciting adventure” later, her recitation reveals the madness she tacitly condoned, the logic faultless, the premises utterly insane.
Junge’s story contributed substantially to Downfall, a detailing, set in the bunker, of the very last days of the Reich directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. To play the Führer, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz did months of research, seeking to capture Hitler’s “natural voice,” a “calm baritone” at odds with the familiar squawk. He had only a seven-minute recording made by a Finnish diplomat of Hitler chatting at a dinner party on which to base his interpretation. Downfall‘s high-caliber soundscape includes barely any music and realistic echoes of the approaching ordnance, allowing the smallest sounds – an unanswered phone, the crunch as Hitler’s dog Blondi gets her very own cyanide pill, and especially the voices of the actors – to resonate fully. Through their speech they communicate the strangulation underway. On the few occasions that Ganz’s Hitler loses his grip, his screeching appalls and startles anew. Of playing him, Ganz said, “I cannot claim to understand Hitler. Even the witnesses who had been in the bunker with him were not really able to describe the essence of the man. He had no pity, no compassion, no understanding of what the victims of the war suffered. Ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there was none.”
Downfall has a gravity both serious and absurd. Nearly all of it takes place in the final bunker, the lighting dingy, the camerawork so tight and claustrophobic the images all but reek with the rot. In one of the best scenes, Eva Braun (Julia Köhler) and two of the secretaries, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) and Gerda Christian (Birgit Minichmayr), surface to the ruined chancellery garden to have a smoke. It’s well into the film and gives a full sense of the stifling, parallel reality below through the simple device of birds singing. In another such scene, Hitler himself appears above-ground to award a ragtag group of kids for “defending” their street from the unstoppable Russians, the ceremony carried out amidst the detritus and rubble that would soon be most of Berlin. Bent and palsied, Ganz’s Hitler is a study in obliviousness. Still, as one character observes, “Der Führer ist der Führer.”
Even more than the well-depicted narrowing of the options as the inevitable becomes clear, Downfall touches on the popularity and real love Hitler inspired. No contemporary politician has this, but it’s very much the myth-making we attach to profoundly ordinary celebrities. Writer Bernd Eichinger drew from Joachim Fest’s Der Untergang (The Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker, the Last Days of the Third Reich) and, as noted above, from Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. What comes across is the nice guy Hitler could apparently be – in a recent interview about the film, real-life nurse to Hitler Erna Flegel, now 93, remarked: “His authority was extraordinary. He was always polite and charming. There was really nothing to object to,” though she did go on to say those living in the bunker were “living outside reality.” And the alternative to this way of life that the truly devoted could not even imagine is most gruesomely shown in the slaying of the Goebbels’ six children and the parents’ subsequent double suicide. Rarely has a film conveyed the total and totally false world that the Nazis managed to construct and, for a time, make real. The Goebbels’ decision to murder their children becomes a coda for the entire era; at times, Downfall is almost like watching an entire planet die.
A somewhat one-note entry but still important is Hitler’s Hit Parade, an unscripted compilation directed by Oliver Axer and Susanne Benze. Divided into thematic aspects of Nazi culture, the film follows the popular music of the time, cloying, diabetes-inducing concoctions typified by numbers such as “What If the Week Had No Sunday?,” “This Will Be a Spring with No End,” “Catching the Last Tram,” and, soundtracking a young boy’s dream of Hitler’s silhouette, “You Are in All My Dreams.” (To think of these titles as contemporaneous with the concentration camps is truly grisly, though the film lets you draw those conclusions yourself, with only a few scenes from Theresienstadt, the cynically built “city for the Jews.”) Archival footage, much of it in color, records everyday details such as the dollhouse that includes an appropriately proportioned portrait of Hitler or the commonplace measuring of children’s height and facial features or a vignette of a just-married groom thanking his wife’s ancestors for their virtuoso genes, along with more expected images of the fitness drills and combat practice for Hitler Youth. What the film also hints at was the quite open acknowledgment of sexuality (as long as it wasn’t homosexual) that marked the Third Reich. There’s an implication of liaisons happening all over town, everything with the blessing of the leaders, which brought to mind a recent observation by historian Thomas Lacquer that what the Nazis managed was “an antibourgeois incitement to desire that was somehow linked to mass murder.” Ultimately, this led the postwar West German ’68er radicals, as Dagmar Herzog points out in Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in 20th Century Germany, to question a possible relationship between pleasure and evil.
The airbrushed world Hitler’s Hit Parade revives is of course at complete odds with what we now know. The music shows the shameless appeal to people’s emotions, how the regime discouraged humor and intellectual curiosity, catering instead to placid followers.
It’s difficult to miss the parallels to contemporary American consumer life. The Third Reich, after all, was one of the most recognizable brands long before the efficiency of product placement. Advertising owes no small debt to the selling of this system; just re-view Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or Nürnberg 1935 and you’ll see the antecedents of the hermetic world of advertising perfections that lie always just this side of your credit card.
The propaganda machine is, of course, most obvious in the excellent documentary The Goebbels Experiment. Kenneth Branagh reads excerpts from Goebbels diaries, which he kept consistently and wrote prolifically from 1924 through 1945, more than 6,000 pages. A failed novelist, his ambition was to write the definitive history of the Reich, the diaries a mix of the personal and items intended for posterity. An early affliction left Goebbels lame, and nearly everything about his public presentations has to do with overcoming a huge sense of inadequacy – “my friends didn’t like me” is one of his early observations.
The aptly titled Goebbels Experiment (the subject often rails against the pre-Nazi “experiments” in every part of life, admonishing that they “belong in labs,” his own aim “certainty”) traces his beginnings, his attempts at writing, and his political awakening. And then the meeting with Hitler, “like the earth in summer after rain.” In a later entry, Goebbels declares, “I love him … a political genius to whom I bow.” Hitler served as best man at his wedding, tearfully reminding Goebbels to “be happy and be loyal.” He was neither, perennially dissatisfied and a devoted philanderer, especially with Czech actress Lida Baarová, for whom he nearly left his wife Magda.
Among the most important previously unseen footage in the Goebbels Experiment is a languid sequence shot in 1942 springtime Berlin. People sun themselves, eat outdoors, sail and bathe in the Spree River. At that very time, the protocols of the Wannsee “final solution” conference (the entire meeting all of an hour) were underway not so far out of town. The images chill with of their very complacency, suggestive not only of what Germans were ignoring but what the rest of the world was doing little to stop. The Nazis knew to show their followers severely cropped images, to keep the dirty work at a distance (though it still doesn’t explain the people who lived near the camps who, even if they could shut their eyes to the exodus, had to have picked up on the unmistakable smell of burning flesh, a curiously unremarked-on fact in fiction films based on that period).
Goebbels relied a great deal on Crystalizing Public Opinion, whose author, public relations maestro Edward L. Bernays (right), had an indelible effect on American advertising and social attitudes. For Bernays, advertising was “the erosion of custom by manipulation of passion.” Goebbels well understood binding people together through emotion rather than rationality. Once war became inevitable, Goebbels advocated “the shortest war” and “total war.” It’s hard not to hear echoes in today’s rhetoric, despite the shift from “war” to “struggle.”
In many ways, it’s the throwaway entries that cast the greatest pall. Goebbels’ frequent comment on how marvelous the weather is, for example, even when the Reich finally makes it to Paris and he’s dining at Maxim’s with bombers overhead: “weather great.”
Filmmaker Lutz Hachmeister used previously unseen footage to give a sense of the world that Goebbels & Co. ran. Like Hitler’s Hit Parade, it’s the pervasive placidity that rankles. Accustomed as we are to seeing storm troopers hauling people out in the middle of the night, to seeing Jews huddling in the ghetto or herded onto trains, in short to thinking of the Third Reich as one long action sequence, the period takes on a completely different hue when thought of as ordinary life.
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Each of these films are important simply because they’re made in Germany. They’re like a reclamation of the Third Reich from its global definition to one specifically German. They count on every viewer already having the standard images of the Third Reich in their minds (though, mercifully, as Susan Sontag pointed out, there is no one iconic image of the Holocaust; we can only hope its indescribable aspects forever resist packaging). The point that Nazism happened insidiously, with small changes in the daily routine, cannot be made often enough.
Seminal to these German films is what they don’t show: the horrifying and nightmarish scenes. In the Third Reich, the Nazis managed to make huge changes seem organic and natural, to aggrandize men into demigods, and to make the movement seem to be happening everywhere at once.
The Third Reich has been the exception that proves the rule of evil: it all lurks in that one place, the measure against which everything else falls slightly short. This evil became so obvious it allowed for spoofing by Charlie Chaplin, for countless German-accented movie villains, and for Hogan’s Heroes, which succeeded in making of Schulz’s inevitable “I know nossing” a reliable laugh. But through these films – that most Nazified medium – we can finally get a sense of what most Third Reich life was like from the ground up; in many ways, not so far from our own. In short, completely normal.