Monday, April 02, 2007

Viewing: 3 Films Probe the Nazi Mind

Most of us are familiar with films exploring the history of WWII. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been made. The recent, award winning film, Saving Private Ryan, is one of the best known, and those who have seen Band of Brothers will attest to its gripping stories and performances.

Filmmakers began producing films about WWII as the war itself was still being fought. They coninued in the war's immediate aftermath. And in the six decades since the war, films continue to be written and produced. Filmmakers have taken us into concentration camps, into prison camps, onto the bridge of a Japanese carrier, and into the belly of WWII aircraft. Through film we have visited Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the brutal winter of '42-43 at the gates of Stalingrad where brave Russian soldiers fought off wave after wave of Hitler's armies, the sands of Iwo Jima, the deserts of North Africa, the hill country of Italy, the streets of Warsaw, and the harsh winter of '44-45 in the region of Ardennes, France where the Battle of the Bulge occurred. I've listed but a few.

In this review, I will report on three lesser known films examining not the battles, the strategies, or the soldiers, but the aberrant ideology and the twisted psychology of Hitler and his henchmen. Below, the films are reviewed in their historical, chronological order.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days(in German with English subtitles)
Prior to viewing this film, I had never heard of the White Rose, a small band of university students in Munich who risked everything when they began to publish leaflets excoriating Adolph Hitler, his war policies, and everyday Germans who, through their silence, had allowed Nazi machinations to nearly destroy Europe. This film focuses primarily on Sophie Scholl, the sister of White Rose leader and founder, Hans Scholl. Set in the winter of 1943 just following Germany's defeat at Stalingrad, the story covers but six days in her life. It is based upon true events and real people.

The film opens as four White Rose members are planning their activities, with Hans and Sophie offering to distribute the Sixth Leaflet at the university the next morning. As the university students pour out of their classrooms and discover the White Rose leaflets, Hans and Sophie hurry to exit the building. But they are accosted by a university janitor, detained, and subsequently arrested by the Gestapo.

A large part of this film focuses on Sophie's interview with officer Robert Mohr of the dreaded Gestapo. Watching two people dialogue in another language with English sub-titles might seem boring on the face of it, but there is nothing boring about Sophie's interrogation by this ideologue. At first, Sophie denies her involvement, but then as the evidence against her mounts, she subsequently acknowledges her role, and in the end becomes defiant in her convictions. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days concludes with the circus trial of Sophie, Hans, and another White Rose member, Christopher Probst, and their subsequent executions.

Today, Germans celebrate the stories and courage of White Rose members, with memorials throughout Munich. The screenplay was developed from actual records and transcripts just recently made public after the re-unification of Germany.

Julia Jentsch, the young German actress who played Sophie, won the award for best actress at the European Film Awards, the German Film Awards (Lolas), and the Berlin Film Festival.

I had never heard of Sophie Scholl before this movie appeared. I was deeply moved at the courage of this young woman who despite the fact that so much of her life was yet ahead of her, stood firm and embraced the consequences. If you are not familiar with her story, you should be.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days brings us a stark reminder of the ease with which everyday people can turn their heads and pretend that evil is good. It should serve as an inspiration for us all to remain ever vigilant.

Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace
Raised in the Lutheran Church, I first heard the story of the German Lutheran pastor and Nazi resister, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, as a young teen. As part of my catechism studies, I was required to read Bonhoeffer's classic work, The Cost of Discipleship. I am sad to report that I cannot remember anything about it.

Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace attempts to tell the story of the Lutheran pastor and theologian as he struggles over ethical questions regarding his role in the failed plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. For this act of treason, Bonhoeffer is arrested, interrogated, and thrown into a prison cell. He is never tried, however. The film concludes with his hanging just one month before the allied victory.

I was disappointed by the production. I had hoped for a more coherent telling of his story, and had I not had some familiarity with it, I would have likely been lost until the scene where he is arrested. Gaps in the story come in two forms:

First, Bonhoeffer's character is quite underdeveloped. As the story's protaganist, we want to know him more fully. We want to get inside his heart and his head. He is a Lutheran pastor and theologian, but we never see his congregation, nor the school of his affiliations. Missing in the story is a revelation of the thoughts and ideas which both led him to his fatal decision, and yet caused his internal conflict. At the film's end, I feel as if I have been cheated out of really knowing him.

Second, the timeline is confusing. The story opens in 1937. We next see him in 1939. From there the story continues to unfold, but we don't know what happens when, nor how long he spends in prison before he is executed.

Unlike the other two films in my triad of reviews here, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace was produced in English. There are no subtitles. Nevertheless, despite the German dialog and the subtitles, the other two films are superior.

I still, however, recommend this film because I believe Bonhoeffer's story is worth knowing.

Downfall(in German with English subtitles)
The final film in my tripartite review examines the last days of Hitler and his closest associates as they wait for the end of their dreamed of "1000 Year Reich" in a Berlin bunker.

The screenplay is drawn from the memoirs of Tradl Junge, who at the age of 22 became Hitler's personal secretary. As the Allies closed in on Berlin and the Reich's demise became increasingly clear, Hitler released her to flee the city. She refused, choosing instead to stay with her Führer. It is primarily from her eyewitness account that this true story is retold.

German actor Bruno Ganz does an an extraordinary job in his dramatization of the mad dictator. We see not only the raving tirades of a lunatic, but his human side as well, as he demonstrates compassion towards his most faithful followers. His deft portrayal allows us to see into the mind of a meglomaniac, a man whose delusions led the German people into carnage and ruin.

Though the film is in German with subtitles, we are immediately drawn into life in the bunker, watching the various characters deal with what they know to be their certain demise. Most of the story takes place underground, though occasionally the filmmakers take us to the streets of Berlin, as the Allies draw near.

Downfall is a masterpiece in psychological character study. We see Hitler in his war room, barking out orders to his generals, commanding them to move army batallions that no longer exist. We see the reactions of his closest compatriots as they struggle to deal with their own grim reality, while yet struggling to remain true to their Führer. We watch Magda Goebbels poison her six children rather than have them grow to adulthood in a world without her National Socialist dream.

The film is 2-1/2 hours in length. Its theme is dark. We already know how the story ends. The dialog is in a foreign language. Yet despite these apparent negatives, the production, even with subtitles, does not for one minute fail to hold us in its grasp.

Takeaway? I am more convinced than ever that ideas do indeed have consquences.

Labels: , , , , , ,