January 30, 2003
Seeing the Truth
"Blind Spot" offers a rare look at Hitler -- from the perspective of one of his assistants, Traudl Junge.
"I was the secretary of Anne's murderer." So began a strange letter written in 1988 to Melissa Mueller after the publication of her best-selling "Anne Frank: The Biography" (Owl Books, 1999). The secretary was Traudl Junge, who served as one of Hitler's personal assistants from 1942 until his suicide in 1945. In the final days of the war, she took down his last will and testament before he shot himself in his Berlin bunker. Fearing retaliation, she refused to tell her story for the next 53 years. But now, remorseful and suffering from terminal breast cancer, she seemed ready to talk.
Mueller immediately called her friend, internationally renown multimedia artist Andre Heller, the son of a Holocaust survivor. "I was interested in how someone had changed from Hitler's assistant to an anti-fascist," Mueller told The Journal from his hometown of Vienna. "Was it believable or not?"
The result is his riveting documentary, "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," culled from 13 hours of interviews conducted with the chain-smoking Junge in her spare, one-room Munich flat in Spring 2001. Essentially a series of close-ups without stylistic embellishments, the 90-minute film is part confession, part fascinating memoir. Junge, 81, describes how she grew up fatherless and she craved the affection of a boss who called her "child"; how Hitler practically never used the word, Jew; how he disliked flowers because he hated dead things around; and how he numbly sat with a puppy in the days before his own suicide.
"'Blind Spot' is an intriguing film because Frau Junge is probably the last intimate of Hitler who will speak before a camera," said Princeton University history professor Anson Rabinbach. "From a historical point of view, there is little that is really new [here].... However, as a film about Hitler's secretary, which is really the subject, there are fascinating moments, especially her repeated attempts to come to terms with ... her own behavior."
As such, "Blind Spot" joins a growing body of work on more ordinary Nazi perpetrators emerging after years of intense focus on the Holocaust victims, notably Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
For Heller, however, the focus was more personal. Initially he worried about what his late father, the Holocaust survivor, would have thought of the film. Apparently the elder Heller had hated the Nazis so virulently that he once forced a neighbor to eat the swastika-shaped thread embroidered on his pillow. "Why should I be taking a confession from a woman who worked for my father's greatest enemy?" Heller asked himself. "But in the end, I felt [vindicated] because I knew I was speaking to a person who had transformed herself."
Junge's survivor guilt reminded the filmmaker of his own father's experience.
Before Hitler came to power, the Hellers were wealthy industrialists who had converted to Catholicism "because they thought it would help them rise through Viennese society, but of course it helped not at all. When the Nazis arrived in 1938, my father was promptly arrested and forced to clean the streets with a toothbrush as onlookers jeered."
While the family fortune helped him flee to England, the murder of a large part of his family in concentration camps and his survivor's guilt left him a broken man, Heller said. "He became addicted to opium and by the time I was born in 1947 he was already a wreck."
Eleven years later, he committed suicide by locking himself in the family library while suffering an embolism. Subsequently, young Andre was sent to a boarding school in the district of Styria. "On the first day of class, the teacher told everyone, 'This is Heller; don't sit beside him because he has bad blood in his veins.'"
When his classmates sang anti-Semitic songs in the streets, Heller, then 15, took the train to the district capitol and tried to complain to the governor -- unsuccessfully. "That was the beginning of my political awakening," he said.
Heller became a prominent activist on the anti-fascist front, for which he at times received threatening letters and even sacks of excrement in the mail. When he began interviewing Junge with cameraman Othmar Schmiderer in 2001, he discovered that she feared similar kinds of retribution.
Ten minutes into the interview, he said he realized "this was an impoverished woman who was widowed young, never remarried, never had children, who had punished herself for years with cancer and with total isolation. She couldn't forgive herself, just as my father also couldn't forgive himself for his survival."
Apparently "Blind Spot" proved cathartic for Junge. She died hours after the film's 2002 premiere in a Berlin theater less than 56 feet from the bunker where she had jotted down Hitler's will. "I don't consider her one of my heroes," Heller said. "But I had a kind of respect for what she went through, not to hide the truth from herself."
"Blind Spot" opens today in Los Angeles. Â