Coming to terms

German films echo a nation's struggle to reconcile its present with its past.

By TOM TUGEND
October 29, 2005 22:36

Sixty-seven years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi-organized mobs burned and looted thousands of German synagogues and Jewish stores during Kristallnacht, in 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 multi-syllabic, for this internal struggle. It's Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, literally mastering the past, but better understood as "coming to terms with the past." The four films themselves can be divided into three categories, or three ways of wrestling with the Nazi legacy: As a documentary on past evil. As two movies celebrating "good" Germans, who resisted. And through one idiosyncratic comedy that carries the hope that Germans and Jews are beginning to see each other as just normal neighbors, without guilt or rancor. The Goebbels Experiment is the least artful and most depressing film of the lot, but exercises the hypnotic spell of 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 his words with appropriate news clips. While to the outside, the Nazi leadership presented a solid front, united in devotion to the Fuehrer, the diaries present a picture of bitter rivalries and palace intrigues. The documentary reveals Goebbels, through his own words, as vain, ambitious, a womanizer, who deluded his people until the final moment through his total and skillful control of the country's propaganda apparatus. In the end, he proved his loyalty to Hitler by having his wife Magda poison their five children in the Fuehrer's bunker, and then carrying out a mutual death pact with his wife. Before the Fall helps answer the question as to 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 promising teenagers trained to become the future Nazi governors of Moscow and London. Their strictly regimented program set out to fulfill Hitler's promise: "In my fortress, we shall raise a young generation that will male the world tremble with fear. I want a ruthless, commanding, fearless, savage youth. There should be nothing weak or fragile about it." Graduation from a Napola guaranteed a bright future career and this prospect lures 16-year old Friedrich. Though he comes from a Communist-leaning working class family, Friedrich looks the ideal Aryan type and is a promising boxer. He fits right in until he befriends Albrecht, who as a sensitive, book-reading non-athlete 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," said Gansel. "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. Carrying the point that there were some Germans who refused to fall into line much further is Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Scholl, a belated heroine in post-war Germany, was a 21-year old university student in Munich, who with 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 a guillotine. The film is carried by the shattering performance of Julia Jentsch as Sophie, who stands up under Gestapo interrogation and chooses death rather than 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 is lovely film that gets its laughs and warmth by showing what happens when a completely secular and assimilated Jew has to host a rigidly Orthodox Jew. Middle-aged Jaeckie Zucker (formerly Jacob Zuckerman) ekes out a precarious existence as a poolshark and gambler. His fortunes look up when he hears that his mother has died, leaving a sizeable estate. The catch is that as a condition of the inheritance he must reconcile with his long estranged brother Samuel, a fervently 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 gentile wife panic. They take an instant crash course in Judaism and load up on mezuzahs, menorahs and kosher food. 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."


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