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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
"I would like to make comedies," German director Michael Verhoeven said as he accepted the Achievement Award at the opening of the Eighth Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival earlier this month. There is a playful gleam in Verhoeven's eyes as he speaks, but he is in Israel to present The Forgotten Soldier, an extremely serious documentary about atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht. The film is the product of 10 years of intensive research.
Certainly, this gifted director, 68, can make any kind of movie he wants. His trilogy of dramatic films about World War II - The White Rose, The Nasty Girl and My Mother's Courage - received worldwide critical acclaim and combine moments of sly humor with tragedy. But throughout his life he has been driven by a desire to make sense of the Nazi era, an interest he says was fueled by the fact that, when he was growing up, so many adults simply refused to discuss this part of their lives.
He acknowledges the fact that there are similarities between himself and the heroine of The Nasty Girl, a young woman who becomes obsessed with illuminating her town's Nazi past after she begins work on an essay about the history of her area. Eventually, her interest alienates her from her friends, family and community.
"She starts to become political when she learns that the people around her have something to hide," he says.
Verhoeven's family was artistic - his father was a film and theater director and many of his relatives are in the entertainment industry - and, he says, "I grew up more knowing more about the Nazi era than many of my friends."
Unlike his friends' fathers, who "were prisoners of war, were killed, or who came back just relieved that it was over," his father, aided by his mother, hid out to avoid the draft, which was extremely unusual. As he tried to learn more about what actually went on during the war from his history teachers, he found himself alone in his magnificent obsession.
"My friends reacted as if I were fouling my nest ... Friends that I loved rejected me," he says. "They saw me as someone whose father was a traitor because he did not go to war."
Similar reactions are shown in The Forgotten Soldier, a film inspired by the controversy over a series of exhibitions on the crimes of the Wehrmacht, which was shown in German cities starting in 1997. He took the exhibition and the demonstrations it inspired, both by neo-Nazis and anti-Nazis, as the starting point for his own research.
"The most important thing for me and for most people in my country was to learn that the Wehrmacht was not just a little bit involved" in the killings of Jews and prisoners of war. The war on the Eastern Front "was a war against the population. The Wehrmacht had it in mind to extinguish the Jewish population."
For many people, Verhoeven says, "this was new. We thought the Wehrmacht were the stabilizing influence. We knew that the SS and the Eisengruppen were the bad guys," but thought that "the Wehrmacht was under the SS. We always thought that the SS was so cruel, so powerful and the Wehrmacht had no way to resist."
But the exhibition and his subsequent research disproved this notion. A huge number of disturbing photographs taken by Wehrmacht soldiers in the field showing mass killings and torture of Jewish civilians, often in broad daylight and in public places, prove and underline Verhoeven's findings. A historian interviewed in The Forgotten Soldier describes these pictures as "virtually the photo album of the German people."
Another finding that surprised Verhoeven, he says, was that "those who resisted were not punished. I always thought someone who would not have obeyed orders [to kill civilians and commit atrocities] would have been killed. There was no punishment for generals and high-level officers or simple soldiers who didn't kill Jews. This was new to me."
Asked why those who resisted were not honored after the war, Verhoeven replies, "This is the biggest question. Not only about those in the Wehrmacht, but also [those] in normal society who resisted ... [But] we were told that resistance didn't happen."
In spite of a long search, he was only able to find one former German soldier who agreed to be interviewed about his experiences, and the film ends with this elderly veteran, Rudolf Mossner, saying simply, "I'm ashamed of the way German soldiers acted in relation to the enemy."
Many elderly Germans who have attended screenings "have applauded the film," Verhoeven says. "They were thankful that something like that has come out."
The film, which had its German premiere in September, will be shown all over Germany and the rest of Europe on television, which Verhoeven says "is the best way to reach every town."
He hopes that his film will inspire people, old and young, to re-examine their past and their future. Asked about the recent Iranian conference aimed at denying the Holocaust, Verhoeven says, "The conference just says a lot about hatred against the Jews. I would show my film there. But they wouldn't invite me."