Showing posts with label World War II. Show all posts
Showing posts with label World War II. Show all posts

24 July 2013

The Lives of Others

It's a commonplace that Germans don't like being reminded of their all-too-recent history, and like much received wisdom, there's some truth in it. Nobody likes it thrown in their face that they were complicit with deep human evil.  Every once in a while you might bump into some guy in a bierstube (I have) who served in the Wehrmacht, and makes no apologies for his war service, but we're talking about a soldier, not Waffen SS or some functionary who played his small part in the Final Solution. Young people, born after the war, get their back up if you mention Hitler and the Nazis, and demand why they should take any responsibility for the buried past---look at what you white Americans have done to the Negro, is the favored response. And of course there are people of a certain age who blame the Jews, for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, without feeling any embarrassment or even a twinge of irony. There's a victim psychology at work, resentful that they've been unfairly singled out, and tarred with too broad a brush. (This is second cousin to the enduring fiction that the French didn't collaborate with the Occupation, or that America First wasn't riddled with virulent anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers.) "That was another country, and besides, the wench is dead."

So it's a fascinating development, to me, that a few German film-makers have begun to explore this willed national memory loss. DOWNFALL (2004), THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (2008). It amounts to a public airing of dirty laundry, and predictably, these guys have taken heat for it.

DOWNFALL is about Hitler's last days in the bunker, and the final Russian assault on Berlin. In a sense, it's a war movie, the fighting in the streets a counterweight to the claustrophobic self-delusion of the Nazi leadership, sealed off underground. It's also deeply, viscerally frightening to be trapped with these people, the impossible hope of rescue, Magda Goebbels poisoning her children, Hitler, to the end, consumed by the perfidy of the Jews. It plays like black comedy, this feverish unreality, toxic with evasion and denial, but there isn't any comic relief in sight, only bitter disgrace, and suicide, and lasting shame for the survivors. The movie was attacked by critics in Germany, not for fudging the historical record, but for 'humanizing' Hitler. A curious complaint. Bruno Ganz, a Swiss, as it happens, manages the weird trick of seeming to shrink inside his clothes, wasting away as you watch. He makes Hitler human, all right, and if anything, all too familiar. This is not a monster, or an alien presence, but a mirror of our own weakness for hatred. Hitler, seen in the flesh, and without disguise, isn't a figure in some distant landscape, the diseased nephew safely hidden in the family closet. No wonder it made Germans uncomfortable.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX navigate a shifting historical landscape as well. Both are about betrayal. Both are about how Germany defines herself. And both are about doubtful orthodoxies. THE LIVES OF OTHERS takes place in East Germany in the 1980's, when Stasi informants were everywhere, and on the large scale, it's a study of life in an oppressive police state, although the major characters are actually people of privilege. In detail, though, small things matter, choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love. The moral punchline comes in a coda, after the Wall is torn down and the East German regime collapses, and old choices, large or small, can be handled like talismans.

BAADER MEINHOF is something of a cautionary tale, a Cold War story from the 1970's, about the zeal of a convert. Politics are radical and undisciplined, and a splinter faction on the Left turns to violence, a terror campaign against the neo-Fascism of the Old Guard. The security services, reading the Devil's handwriting, react with increasingly brutal tactics. The right-wing press, led by the Axel Springer newspaper chain, impatient with civil liberties, egg them on. They give the Baader-Meinhof gang its name, which over-inflates their importance, and actually generates public sympathy. The ringleaders were captured after a nationwide manhunt. Four of them were later to commit suicide in prison, which gave rise to, shall we say, unanswered questions. The legacy of Baader-Meinhof is mixed, at best.

Taken together, these three pictures don't amount to a critical mass, and nobody expects the Germans to rend their garments and beat their breasts over the crimes of their fathers, any more than you'd expect it of Americans---and everybody, let's face it, is guilty of something. The past is never a closed book. But the unexamined life, Plato tells us, isn't worth much. We don't need to be haunted by regret, or brood on the wrongs done us, or weep for the sins of men. We do require of ourselves an accounting. Choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love.

10 April 2013

The Night of The Generals

Not that many movies begin with a guy hiding in a stairwell toilet, peeking through a crack in the door. Warsaw, 1942, the German occupation. A whore is murdered. A major in German intelligence is called in by the Polish police, because the case may have unhappy political considerations. The girl was a German informant. Oh, and the guy in the toilet? He saw somebody coming down the stairs, but he can't identify him, because all he saw was the lower half of a Wehrmacht uniform, with a red stripe down the leg. It happens only German generals wear the red stripe.

Three of the generals posted to Warsaw have no explanation for where they were on the night in question, and Major Grau of Intelligence takes it on himself to narrow the field of suspects. His immediate subordinate, a captain, asks him why it matters who killed the girl, a nobody. Grau asks him in return, Have you ever heard of the Eumenides? Grau's point is that even a whore's lonely death, unrevenged, will call down the Furies. One of the suspected officers, General Tanz, makes the explicit counterargument, later in the picture, when he says, Why should this woman's murder attract any attention at all?---our century has seen millions of deaths more horrible than hers. From this perspective, the moral question is one of degree.

NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is compelling not because of the mystery---it's pretty transparent from the get-go which of our guys is a nutjob---but because it's about a murder in wartime. Everything plays out against the worsening backdrop of Germany's coming collapse, from Warsaw in '42 to Paris in July of '44, after the Allied landings in Normandy, and everybody's got something to hide. One of the major plot strands is the conspiracy in the German high command to assassinate Hitler, for example. This raises the stakes considerably, and while you might not agree with General Tanz, and his moral relativism, you can see where he's coming from. With defeat looming, who seriously cares about dead whores? (There's more than one victim as the movie goes on. It turns out there's a serial killer on the loose.) And the dogged military cop, Grau, keeps getting the brush-off, swatted away by higher ranks, and reassigned because he's a nuisance. Not necessarily by the murderer, either. That's where the real mystery lies, not in the homicide investigation itself, but why all these people are so determined to throw Grau off the scent.

Donald Pleasance, Peter O'Toole, Charles Gray, Omar Sharif

The picture uses an effective structural device, which is basically a frame story, although that's not immediately apparent, since it begins in media res, but then it starts to shift back and forth in time, between the war and the present day---the present day being twenty years later. This allows people to comment on the events of the past, as you see them in flashback, or flash-forward, and often enough, they get it wrong. So there's an element of unreliable narrative mixed in. You don't know whether to trust the witnesses. Their memories may be corrupted by dubious loyalties, or simply self-serving, or they're still protecting old secrets.

Lastly, although this is perhaps parenthetical, when I first saw the movie, in late '67, I think it was, I'd been in Berlin almost two years, and one of the things I thought the picture got dead right was the German habit of mind. In particular, the way the Germans chose to to think about the war, or more to the point, the way they chose not to. In one scene, a veteran officer, now managing an automotive plant, laments that the Wehrmacht might have been able to stop the Allies, if the Army hadn't been stabbed in the back---as usual, he adds. This is willful disbelief, and a denial of history.  In another instance, an aging general is writing his memoirs, and he's gotten as far as the July 1944 plot against Hitler. He remarks that one has to be circumspect, so as not to re-open old wounds, particularly, he says, since so many of the convicted war criminals are now being released. This beggars imagination. Most people, on the other hand, can't be blamed for wanting to reinvent themselves, or be cast in a better light. For example, the French, everybody secretly in the Resistance, and nobody a willing collaborator. Or the Russians, or the Brits, or the Japanese, or us. Americans conveniently forget how strong the isolationist sentiment in this country was, before Pearl Harbor, and how many people thought Hitler was right about the Jews. In this sense, then, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is subversive. It chooses both to forget, or to blur memory, and at the same time to serve as a sharp reminder, that only some of us are guilty, but none of us are innocent. No less than the Germans, we congratulate ourselves on learning the wrong lessons. No matter how this turns out, Rommel says, talking about the soon-to-fail July plot, history will judge us as patriots, or traitors.

At the end, though, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS does in fact turn on justice for those murdered whores, and there's some small satisfaction in that. In spite of its large canvas, and larger issues, the picture manages to keep a tight focus, and the Furies are held at bay. Or as Stalin is said to have remarked, one death is a tragedy, millions are a statistic.

IMDb movie website link: