Saturday, January 21, 2012


Seeing the Holocaust Through Movie Prisims

There are four films that say a lot about the national madness which overtook Germany beginning in the mid 1930s. All of them are set during the war which resulted from this madness, mainly towards the end of that war. If you watch these films, you will think differently about the Holocaust and the European Theater of WWII than you did before you watched them. They are, in the main, tough movies, but who doesn't want to shake up one's sense of history?

They are: Conspiracy, The Grey Zone, Downfall and Sophie Scholl.

Conspiracy is an HBO movie, one of that network's best efforts from its salad days, with Kenneth Branagh as SS Lt. General Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Karl Adolph Eichmann in a generally accurate recreation of the Wannsee Convention in January, 1942, where it was decided that the answer to the "Jewish Question" was to be murder on an industrial scale. All the actors were excellent and the script razor sharp. Even though it's just a meeting in a nice home in a Berlin suburb, it packs a serious punch; although what I took away was not Hannah Arendt's banality of evil, but the seriously capricious nature of justice.

Downfall is the last days in the Fuhrer bunker in Berlin (now a shopping mall) with a superb performance by Bruno Ganz as Hitler. They've taken his "Der Krieg ist verloren" rant here and changed the subtitles into contemporary American political content generally to hilarious effect, but here is the deadly serious original. There is also a lot of pitch perfect detail, my favorite is the palsy in his left hand (a symptom of Parkenson's?) as he congratulates some Hitler Youth (also captured on film at the time--view here). If you like to see Nazis shooting themselves in the head (and who doesn't?) this is your movie. My lasting take away was the die hard enthusiasm of the Goebbels family, well, of the mother and father.

All my adult life, I've heard about the White Rose, the German resistance to the Nazis, and in my ignorance I had imagined a pervasive, effective underground movement. Sophie Scholl disabused me of my fantasies. You start with the pathetic, little, ineffectual movement it was and end with a despairing respect for the steely ruthlessness the Nazis used to crush any resistance and reduce it to absolute insignificance. You're not thankful for the lesson.

The Grey Zone is about a later Sonderkommando at Birkenau, when the largely Hungarian trustee Jews staged a short, ineffectual revolt in October, 1944. The performances, other than Keitel's, are excellent (even David Arquette's) and the dialog is so hard you could cut diamonds with it. This is an unrelentingly harsh view of one of the nadirs of human interaction. It makes Schindler's List look like a Disney film in comparison and is a necessary antidote to the slop we were force fed in Inglourious Basterds.


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