Saturday, 30 July 2011

Good Nazis, bad news, part 2


The films mentioned at the beginning of this article are not completely unprecedented, as fascists and fascism have been portrayed onscreen for decades. What is striking today is a number of key trends that are appearing in so many new films.

Enter the good Nazi

The first of these trends is the ‘good Nazi’. This term was originally coined for Albert Speer, the architect and prominent Party member who served as Minister of Armaments and War Production in Hitler’s regime. Claiming ignorance of the Holocaust to escape execution at the Nuremburg trials, Speer argued that he drew close to the Führer not out of political conviction but in order to realise his dreams as an architect. He would not be the last Nazi to protest innocence of his regime’s horrors.

The ‘good Nazi’ – the more general ‘good fascist’ would be better, but the label is already current as a cinematic type – has become a favourite theme in contemporary film. In Schindler’s List he is Oskar Schindler, the industrialist and Party member who uses his factories to spare Jews from the concentration camps. In Captain Corelli’s Mandolin he is the eponymous Captain Corelli, a soldier in the Italian fascist army who sings songs and falls in love with one of the women whose island his army occupies. In The Pianist he is Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, the music-loving officer who brings food to the haggard Szpilman in the ruins of Warsaw. In The Counterfeiters he is Bernhard Kruger, the chief of a Sachsenhausen counterfeiting operation, who provides his Jewish workers with privileges, never hits his children, and whose Party membership is mere opportunism. In Black Book he is the SS officer Ludwig Müntze, who baulks at the atrocities of his superiors and ends up as the lover and protector of the heroine. In Valkyrie he is Von Stauffenberg, the principled officer who tries to bring the war to an end by assassinating Hitler. In John Rabe he is the loyal Party member who is shocked by Japanese atrocities in China.

In Good, directed by Vicente Amorim, the protagonist John Halder is a professor and decent family man whose novel on euthanasia brings him to the attention of the Nazi Party. Initially hesitant, Halder agrees to be recruited to the Party in the interests of keeping it in touch with ‘humanity’. Despite warnings from his Jewish friend Maurice, Halder somehow manages to remain ignorant of the regime’s racism and finds himself being mobilised for Kristallnacht. It is only when Halder goes in search of the now missing Maurice and is confronted with a concentration camp that the penny finally drops.

The film explores how a series of choices (in combination with moral cowardice) takes a civilised man to the point where he finds himself serving the SS and helping to perpetrate the Holocaust. On one level, Good is a serious attempt to understand how the population of an advanced state might be seduced into collaborating with a vicious regime. On another, it offers us yet another character who is a good person despite their fascist uniform.

The message delivered by the ‘good Nazi’ is that it is possible to be both a decent person and a fascist. He or she often has a connection to traditional (i.e. pre-fascist) culture, and demonstrates sympathetic traits such as loving music, reviling Hitler, rescuing Jews, and so on. Indeed, the sympathy the character encourages is such that he or she must usually share the film with another fascist who is an unmitigated psychopath – for every Oskar Schindler, an Amon Göth – lest its moral compass be lost completely.

John Rabe is often compared to Oskar Schindler [5]. Whereas Schindler clearly acted against the racist policies of the Party, Rabe’s relationship to it is played down onscreen, for example when he is shown, after initial reluctance, joining the American doctor Robert Wilson in the singing of an anti-Nazi song. But not only did this humanitarian join the NSDAP in 1933, he was head of the local branch in Nanjing. During the Japanese invasion he sent a telegram to Hitler in sincere expectation of assistance, and reportedly said in a lecture in 1938: “Although I feel tremendous sympathy for the suffering of China, I am still, above all, pro-German and I believe not only in the correctness of our political system but, as an organiser of the party, I am behind the system 100 percent” [6] – additional evidence suggests that he meant it. When in the film Rabe is confronted by the Jewish diplomat Rosen about the persecution of Jews, he has nothing to say in response. It is true that Rabe, like Schindler, is partly non-racist in practice, by saving the lives of thousands of Chinese, an ethnic group that most fascists would consider racially inferior. He nonetheless patronises them as being “like children”, a view that is never challenged. Just 16 years after Schindler’s List rewrote the rules on whom we may sympathise with in films, John Rabe is perhaps the most egregious of them all, because neither its eponymous hero nor the film itself expresses any significant discomfort with his membership of the Nazi Party. This character is perhaps the first of his kind, and certainly he will not be the last.

“Ten years ago,” commented Ulrich Tukur, the actor who plays the title role in John Rabe, “it was not possible to conceive that there was such thing as a good Nazi.” [7] Today, it is hard to find a film about fascism that does not include this character type.

Humanising Hitler

The second trend requires breaking an even stronger taboo. This is the humanisation of Hitler himself. The most powerful example of this was the performance by Bruno Ganz in Downfall. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film – undoubtedly anti-fascist in its overall impact – depicts the final days of Nazi Germany, mostly through the experiences of the coterie around Hitler in the Führerbunker. Ganz reimagines with great power Hitler’s frustrated tirades, his marshalling of non-existent armies, and his monstrous indifference to suffering, but he also, inevitably, shows more. The Führer comes across as a wretched and hate-filled human being, but a human being nonetheless.

Downfall was not of course the first film to depict Hitler as a character. In Britain, various respected actors have played the role, such as Alec Guinness in 1973’s Hitler: The Last Ten Days and Anthony Hopkins in the 1981 TV drama The Bunker. In Germany, however, Downfall had to overcome a powerful taboo on the appearance of Hitler as a leading character played by a German-speaking actor [8]. Ganz’s powerful performance helped to justify that step and quickly became a benchmark.

Other recent cinematic portrayals of Hitler include Menno Meyjes’s Max (2002) in which we see Hitler deciding whether to devote his life to art or politics, and the 2005 TV drama Uncle Adolf, starring Ken Stott, which explores Hitler’s relationship with his niece Geli Raubal (‘Hitler’s darkest passion’, as the blurb has it). This film takes the humanisation of Hitler much further than Downfall. Early on, Hitler cuts an often jovial figure, larking around with his friends and charming Raubal with his jokes – he is twice referred to as a “wonderful man” and is even shown with Raubal in sexual scenes. Whatever we know about history, many viewers will find it hard not to be provoked to some measure of sympathy when presented with a story of failed love, however twisted the relationship. Even during the last days in the bunker, the film allows Hitler to make an appeal for sympathy: “Have you any idea,” he complains to Eva Braun, as Soviet bombs fall outside, “what this is like for me?”

Although actors often invest months of research in crafting these performances, the quality of their acting is a secondary issue compared to the political significance of breaking the taboo on humanising Hitler. Downfall opened a door, allowing others to go even further.

The humanisation of Hitler may seem excusable on a facile level because Hitler was, undeniably, a human being. One might argue that the alternative is to restrict ourselves to a black and white caricature of a historical figure. With a distance of over sixty years since the end of the war, surely we can now step beyond this simplistic level? After all, Hitler on screen usually comes across as little more than a repulsive lunatic, which is unlikely to win anyone to his politics.

The problem is that to humanise Hitler onscreen is to normalise him and invite a sympathy from the viewer that is completely inappropriate. The dominant fact about Hitler is not that he allegedly fancied his niece, or was a vegetarian, or loved his dog Blondi, but that he was a vicious racist and the lead instigator of the worst atrocity in European history. Bruno Ganz commented, “He had no pity, no compassion, no understanding of what the victims of war suffered. Ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there was none.”[9]

To what end would you invite sympathy with such a figure? One answer would be that it may be profitable to try to ‘understand’ the mentality of Hitler. But little can be learnt about the great forces of history from his personal psychology. Fascism was not the invention of an individual ‘evil genius’ who bewitched millions of innocents into following him, but a national movement that can only be understood by reference to the social forces of the time. Hitler was, so to speak, ‘chosen’ by history to front that movement in Germany. If it had not been him, then some other figure would have been filmed by Hirschbiegel ranting in the bunker. If the individual psychology of Hitler does not offer any real insight, turning him into a cinematic character makes an unacceptable moral compromise for zero gain.

The whitewashing of history

The third trend is the whitewashing of history through the distortion or highly selective use of documented facts. This is unavoidable if film-makers want to make fascist characters palatable to most cinema-goers.

Much of Downfall is presented through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary. Junge is played as an innocent, and appears in interview at the beginning and end of the film to claim that she knew nothing about the extermination camps. This ‘massaging of history’ was severely criticised by historians David Cesarani and Peter Longerich [10]. Nothing in the film is more unconvincing, they point out, than Junge’s eyes widening in shock when she hears Hitler ranting against the Jews. In reality, Junge was a committed National Socialist with a role at the centre of power in the Third Reich.

Downfall portrays most of the bunker’s inhabitants as part of a practical officer caste, honour-bound by oath to an extremist Nazi clique and struggling to manage a desperate situation. This division of the ruling elite into honourable soldiers and callous Nazis is also unconvincing, as we are fed the ghastly spectacle of Waffen-SS officers such as General Mohnke raising humanitarian objections to Hitler’s orders. Or there is the doctor Ernst Günther Schenck, who braves the Soviet advance to help the wounded. Cesarani and Longerich point out that not only had Schenk served in the SS, but after the war he “was implicated in the conduct of ‘frivolous’ medical experiments on inmates in Mauthausen concentration camp.” To represent such a character as a sympathetic hero without mention of this past is an extraordinary ‘oversight’ [11].

Another beneficiary of the historical whitewash is Claus Schenk Von Stauffenberg, portrayed not only in Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie but in a number of recent German films. Von Stauffenberg was a leading figure in the conspiracy that planned to assassinate Hitler in the bomb plot of 20 July 1944 and then mobilise reserve troops (Operation Valkyrie) to complete a coup. Valkyrie’s tagline promises heroic deeds: “Many saw evil. They dared to stop it.” Yet far from being a ‘good’ Nazi, the real Von Stauffenberg was an aristocratic reactionary who welcomed the creation of a German empire. According to historian Roger Moorehouse,

He had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of Nazism, for example, and had welcomed Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933. He embraced all of those subsequent measures – the reintroduction of conscription, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland – which were seen as ‘restoring German honour’.[12]

Although Von Stauffenberg never joined the Nazi party, this was due to elitism rather than principle. He was a racist who, after the 1939 Polish campaign, “described the Poles as ‘an unbelievable rabble’ of ‘Jews and mongrels’ who were ‘only comfortable under the knout’.” Von Stauffenberg’s participation in the conspiracy was motivated more by Hitler’s strategic failures in running the war than the extremely vague humanist ideals attributed to him by the film. This inconvenient context probably helps account for the under-development of Von Stauffenberg’s character. “I have admired him as a hero,” said Tom Cruise, who played him, “and I will play him as a hero.”[13]

The motivations of his fellow conspirators remain equally vague. Several of these characters are played by well-liked actors such as Bill Nighy and the comedian Eddie Izzard, which further encourages us to see them as benign figures.

As for the original ‘good Nazi’, Albert Speer, who insisted that he knew nothing about the Holocaust despite his proximity to Hitler, his myth has been debunked by documents unearthed by Berlin historian Susanne Willems. One report referring to how Auschwitz had been fitted to handle the ‘Final Solution’ was copiously annotated in Speer’s handwriting.[14] Speer’s protests of ignorance, like those of Traudl Junge, are simply not credible in the face of such evidence.

The altering of historical fact is not unusual in art, and is not in itself reprehensible – what matters are the messages that result. What is the effect upon the perceptions of an audience of portraying members of Hitler’s personal staff as innocent of the Holocaust? Of ignoring the atrocities committed by SS officers? Of depicting racist imperialists as heroes?

Moral ambiguity

The last cinematic trend we shall consider is the introduction of a moral ambiguity that questions whether or not fascists are especially repugnant.

For most of the post-war period the verdict on fascism was, rightly, uncompromising: it was an evil that cost millions of people their lives. Today, this verdict is apparently no longer satisfactory, as it is too simplistic and ignores the most interesting moral questions. Thus moral ambiguity is being used to pose ‘uncomfortable’ questions about complicity, and how easily any of us might fall into the same role as the characters onscreen.

An excellent example is the character Hanna Schmitz in The Reader [15], directed by Stephen Daldry. In this film a teenage boy, Michael, befriends a lonely older woman, Hanna, and begins a love affair with her. One day she disappears without warning, and he does not see her again until he is a law student attending a court trial as part of his training. With a shock, he realises that one of the six women in the dock charged with war crimes is his former lover. The key point in the trial comes during a discussion of a death march, when the women on trial locked 300 Jews in a church and let it burn to the ground. When the court produces a contemporary report of the event as evidence, the other defendants try to accuse Hanna of writing it. She admits to doing so, and is consequently sentenced more sternly than the others. But Michael alone knows that she could not have written the report, because she is illiterate.

Hanna admits to participating in the Holocaust, selecting women to be gassed and joining in a death march. The film’s preposterous thesis seems to be that she would rather be imprisoned for mass murder than exposed as illiterate. Perhaps we are meant to think she embraces punishment out of remorse, but if that is so, why are we not shown it? We are offered only the barest whiff of such a motivation. Either way, the film’s main theme is very clear. In the first section of the film we are encouraged to feel a certain sympathy for Hanna. Only then are we told what she has done, and expected to ask ourselves, what led her to behave this way?

It is a question to which the film offers no answer. As Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, “you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard”.[16] At the end of the film Hanna donates her money to one of the survivors of the camps. The survivor refuses it, but, in an unconvincing touch, keeps the old tin Hanna kept the money in because it reminds her of a tin she herself once owned. Although it belonged to an SS guard who helped kill her mother, she puts it on her mantelpiece in a trite and inappropriate image of ‘reconciliation’.

In another scene, a student from Michael’s law class becomes a heavy-handed representative of punitive inflexibility. Raging against Hanna Schmitz and her fellow ex-SS guards, he shouts: “You know what I’d do? Put the gun in my hand and shoot her myself. Shoot them all!” The film then cuts to Michael walking towards Auschwitz. The juxtaposition implies that those who take a hard line against fascists are little better than fascists themselves. In his call for violence, does the law student mean only the six women in the dock, or all the thousands of people who worked in the camps or merely knew about them – a comparable call to mass murder? In the same vein, Hanna demands of the judge at her trial, “What would you have done differently?” Flustered, he offers no reply.

Another film steeped in such moral ambiguity is Black Book. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, the film follows a Dutch Jewish singer called Rachel Stein and her almost picaresque passage from one tribulation to the next during the war. After her family is killed trying to flee the Nazi occupation, Stein becomes a spy for the Resistance, seducing an SS officer, Ludwig Müntze, with whom she falls in love. Then the situation reverses. The Resistance are tricked into thinking she has betrayed them, and they become her pursuers. Müntze, already alienated from his Nazi peers after refusing to carry out an atrocity, becomes her protector, and the lovers flee together from vengeful (and anti-Semitic) Resistance fighters. Towards the end we are presumably meant to grieve as Müntze is shot by an Allied firing squad.

The obvious message is that there is no moral distinction between the Nazis and the Resistance fighters who tried to stop them. The worst of Stein’s many tribulations comes not at the hands of fascists but after the victory, when a Dutch mob publicly humiliate her for supposedly being a collaborator. As Verhoeven put it: “In this movie, everything has a shade of grey. There are no people who are completely good and no people who are completely bad. It’s like life.”[17]

In reality, wanting to stop racism, dictatorship and mass murder is not in the least comparable to perpetrating them. Yet the implication that anti-fascists are no better than the fascists themselves appears again and again, both in these films and in the general media response to anti-fascist activism.

Certainly many people joined fascist parties out of fear or ignorance rather than because they were committed to those politics. But there is a thin line between forgiving the terrorised and forgiving the perpetrators of terror. The emphasis in certain films upon ambivalent characters and situations invites us not only to understand more, but to condemn less.

(Concluded in Part 3.)

[5] It might have been more interesting to film the achievements of the real ‘Chinese Schindler’, Ho Fengshan, a Chinese diplomat to Austria who helped possibly thousands of Jews escape the Third Reich by issuing them with visas to enter Shanghai.
[6] Quoted in David W. Chen, ‘At the Rape of Nanking: A Nazi Who Saved Lives’, New York Times, 15 December 1996.
[7] From an interview with Ulrich Tukur by the DPA news agency, cited on Deutsche Welle (, 9 February 2009.
[8] Hitler had been portrayed in German cinema one or two times before, for example by Albin Skoda in G. W. Pabst’s Der Letzte Akt in 1955. But Downfall broke new ground in seeking the ‘human’ side of the Führer.
[9] From Krysia Diver and Stephen Moss, ‘Desperately Seeking Adolf’, Guardian, 25 March 2005.
[10] David Cesarani and Peter Longerich, ‘The Massaging of History’, Guardian, 7 April 2005.
[11] These shortcomings are less surprising when we consider that Downfall was based largely on a book by Joachim Fest, the right-wing historian who helped Speer write his memoirs.
[12] Roger Moorhouse, ‘A Good German? Von Stauffenberg and the July plot’, History Today, Jan 2009.
[13] Quoted in Allan Hall, ‘Tom Cruise’s transformation into a heroic Nazi’, Daily Mail, 20 July 2007.
[14] See for example Kate Connolly, ‘Wartime reports debunk Speer as the Good Nazi’, Daily Telegraph, 11 May 2005.
[15] The Reader, like Schindler’s List, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and others, is based upon a novel, in this case 1995’s Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink – the new approach to fascism is not limited to the cinema.
[16] Manohla Dargis, ‘Innocence is Lost in Postwar Germany’, New York Times, 10 December 2008.
[17] Quoted in Geoffrey Macnab, ‘Homeward Bound’, The Guardian, 25 November 2005.

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