November 3, 2005
Germany Deals With Dark Past on Screen
Sixty-seven years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi-organized mobs burned and looted thousands of German synagogues and Jewish stores during Kristallnacht, the opening salvo of the coming extermination of European Jewry.
How are the grandchildren of the perpetrators dealing with this legacy? Four new German movies show that far from forgetting its nation's past, today's generation is still wrestling with it, at times obsessively.
The Germans have a word, of course multisyllabic, for this internal struggle: vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, literally mastering the past, but better understood as "coming to terms with the past."
One film focuses on documenting the evil of the past. Two of the movies celebrate "good" Germans, who resisted. And one idiosyncratic comedy carries the hope that Germans and Jews are beginning to see each other as just normal neighbors, who can laugh with each other, without guilt or rancor.
"The Goebbels Experiment" is the least artful and most depressing of the lot, but casts a spell as hypnotic as an Indian snake dance.
Joseph Goebbels was, of course, the brilliant propaganda minister -- Reich Liar-General -- of the Nazi regime, the granddaddy of all spinmeisters, and he kept voluminous diaries throughout his life.
What the film does is to let Goebbels speak for 107 minutes, via the English narration of Kenneth Branagh, while illustrating the words with appropriate news clips.
Goebbels was a man of unprepossessing appearance, small, sallow-faced and born with a clubfoot. (A popular Berlin joke of the 1930s asked, "What does the perfect Aryan look like?" The answer was, "As blond as Hitler, as thin as Goering and as tall as Goebbels.")
To the outside, the Nazi leadership presented a solid front, united in devotion to the Führer, but the diaries present a picture of bitter rivalries and palace intrigues.
Goering is described by Goebbels as a "morphine addict and megalomaniac" and SS chief Heinrich Himmler as one "who hates me and spies on me."
The documentary, which played in Los Angeles recently, reveals Goebbels, through his own words, as vain, ambitious, a womanizer -- and an artful and ruthless propagandist who deluded his people until the final moment possible.
In the end, he proved his loyalty to Hitler by having his wife, Magda, poison their five children in the Führer's bunker, before carrying out a mutual death pact with his wife.
"Before the Fall" helps answer why Nazi youngsters fought fanatically to the end when it was clear that the war was lost -- and what happened to the few who dissented.
The setting is an elite Napola, one of 40 national political institutes where teenagers are trained to become the future Nazi governors of Moscow and London. Their strictly regimented program is set out to fulfill Hitler's promise: "In my fortress, we shall raise a young generation that will make the world tremble with fear. I want a ruthless, commanding, fearless, savage youth. There should be nothing weak or fragile about it.... I want my youths to be strong and handsome.... This is how I can give birth to something new."
Graduation from a Napola promised a bright future and this prospect lures 16-year-old Friedrich. Although he comes from a communist-leaning working-class family, Friedrich, who has boxing talent, looks like the ideal Aryan.
He fits right in until he befriends Albrecht, a sensitive, book-reading nonathlete who is obviously out of place. Albrecht is there because his father, the regional Nazi governor, has the pull and the parental authority to force his son into the elite school.
But when Albrecht protests the massacre of unarmed Soviet prisoners of war in the nearby woods, he reaps the tragic consequences. Friedrich stands up for his disgraced friend and is expelled.
Director Dennis Gansel, only 31, said in a phone interview that he made the powerful film of youthful friendship and rebellion to appeal to today's German teenagers.
"They are bored with films about terrible Nazis and noble victims," Gansel said. "They need characters with whom they can identify."
Gansel got an inside picture of life in a Napola through his grandfather, who served as an instructor at one such institution.
Another film, based on actual events, more directly evokes the sacrifice and rarity of Germans who refused to fall into line.
"Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" tells the story of the real-life Scholl, a 21-year-old university student in Munich who became a belated heroine in post-war Germany.
Scholl, her brother and some friends organized the resistance group called The White Rose. In 1943, while surreptitiously stashing anti-Nazi leaflets at the university, she was caught, put through a show trial, and beheaded by guillotine.
The film is carried by the shattering performance of Julia Jentsch as Sophie, who stands up under Gestapo interrogation and chooses to die rather than to recant her beliefs.
In a category of its own stands "Go for Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy," which swept Germany's top cinema awards this year as a surprise hit.
This film shows what happens when a completely secular and assimilated Jew has to host a rigidly Orthodox Jew. A similar plot line drives the current Israeli hit, "Ushpizin," with the difference that while "Ushpizin" is set in Jerusalem, "Zucker" takes place in contemporary Berlin.
There, middle-aged Jaeckie Zucker (formerly Jacob Zuckerman) ekes out a precarious existence as a pool shark and gambler. Raised in communist East Berlin after his mother and brother fled to the West, Jaeckie left the Jewish "club" a long time ago. He's used to living on his wits, such as they are.
His fortunes look up when he hears that his mother has died, leaving a sizable estate. The catch is that as a condition of the inheritance he must reconcile with his long- estranged brother, Samuel, an ultra-Orthodox real estate tycoon from Frankfurt.
When Samuel announces that he is coming with his family to Berlin to sit shiva at Jaeckie's house, the gambler and his non-Jewish wife panic. They take an instant crash course in Judaism and load up on mezuzahs, menorahs and kosher food.
The encounter between the disparate brothers is good for just about every joke on the themes of communist vs. capitalist, East Germany vs. West Germany and religious Jew vs. agnostic Jew, with Chasid vs. lesbian and mama's boy vs. sex bomb thrown in for good measure.
To understand the popularity of "Zucker" among Germans, one must understand the artificial and insecure relationship between Germans and the country's Jews, with each side nervous about offending the other.
Director Dani Levy, a Swiss-born Jew whose parents had fled Berlin, thinks that "Zucker" has helped defuse some of the tensions.
"Jews have always been able to laugh at themselves and here is a movie in which Germans can laugh with the Jews, not at them," he told an American reporter in Berlin. "If we laugh with other people, that's a sign that you like them. That's the best way to win people over and cross borders."
"Before the Fall" opens Nov. 18 at Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood (check www.laemmle.com for more information). Both "Go for Zucker" and "Sophie Scholl" are scheduled for release in Los Angeles early next year at the Laemmle Theatres. For more information on "The Goebbels Experiment," visit www.firstrunfeatures.com.