The aging face of evil

Director Gunter Schwaiger reveals the unrepentant heart of a Nazi criminal.

PAUL MARIA HAFNER now 22 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
HAFNER'S PARADISE Directed by Gunter Schwaiger 72 minutes German, English subtitles Paul Maria Hafner is a little old man, living a peaceful, minimalist existence in Madrid. He wakes every morning, brushes his bushy eyebrows, eats a simple breakfast of yogurt and fruit (he is quite proud of having invented a yogurt maker) and swims daily. He rides the bus, fraternizes with friends, attends church on Sundays and plays chess… even though, as he admits, he loses most of the time. He is in a word, sympathetic - a strange sort of reaction to have to someone who you know is a former officer in the feared Waffen SS. He simply seems too innocuous, too frail even, to despise. This is part of the masterful, subtle directing of Austrian-born Gunter Schwaiger, who also lives in Spain. We occasionally hear his voice in his documentary Hafner's Paradise as he questions the Nazi, asking him about his day, and slowly urging him to reveal his opinions and recollections about the past. By the end of the film, which is show here as part of the Jewish Film Film Festival (December 1-7), one can only shudder at having ever thought this man was pitiable. It becomes quite clear that his is the face of evil. At 84, Hafner has been living in Spain for over half a century. He boasts about his health, his lifestyle, his routine, but most of all about the glory days, referring several times to Hitler as "the greatest figure in history." He can only dream of living to see a Fourth Reich. After WWII, Hafner found asylum in Franco's Spain, protected from allegations and surrounded by like-minded individuals. This is why Spain is "paradise on earth" for the man. It's a place that allows him to continue to nurture his fanaticism, and yet protects him from the scrutiny of international justice. Between his banal conversations with Schwaiger about pig farming and yogurt-making, he insists that the Jews were sent to Auschwitz for their "own protection." It was a "10-star hotel," he says, compared to life in German cities where civilians lived under the constant threat of Allied bombs. He, of course, fiercely denies the Holocaust, telling his good friend (who just happens to be one of Franco's daughters) that no Jew was ever killed under Hitler for being a Jew. When she confronts him about his beliefs, apparently for the first time, she tells him he's living a twisted fantasy. He shrugs it off. When she further provokes him by saying that she has Jewish blood in her family, his shock can barely be disguised. "What does it matter?" he says. But the discomfort is written all over his face and it's clear he's unsure of how to continue communicating with this old friend. As his extreme beliefs become more clearly defined to the viewer, one wonders whether the man might be genuinely deluded. Has he re-imagined the past to protect himself psychologically from the horror of his own actions? Is he suffering from post-traumatic stress? Could someone so lucid and mentally acute be senile about this particular period of his life? Further confrontations reveal that it is not senility, but rather continued loyalty to the Reich that fuels his statements. While sitting beside a fellow German in an old folk's home where he goes to socialize occasionally, Schwaiger asks Hafner if he believes the Holocaust happened. After staunchly denying it, his friend admits that, unfortunately, it did take place. "I know," he said, "because I know some of the people who were involved." Schwaiger's camera pans over to Hafner. He furrows his brow with disappointment and covers his eyes. His silence says it all. In another scene, Schwaiger shows Hafner disturbing scenes from concentration camps, images of bodies piled upon each other, of people starving to death in barracks. "It proves nothing," he says. "It's a film... It's propaganda." The climax comes when Schwaiger brings Hafner face-to-face with a survivor from Dauchau, the very camp where Hafner himself acted as an officer. This painful scene is one you wish would end before it even begins. The Jewish victim shares his experiences with one of his torturers. He must look him in the face, see his lack of remorse, his ugly denial, and moreover the freedom which he enjoys. Worst of all, he must walk away from the experience having achieved nothing in moving this man to pathos. "You survived quite well," Hafner responds matter-of-fact after the survivor unloads his painful baggage. "I'm not complaining," the survivor says. "I was lucky." By this point, Hafner's heartless lack of repentance is nearly too much to be believed. Yet somehow, he never falls prey to stereotype. Though he believes, in his own words, that he is "a living saint" deserving to live to 127 ("because Sarah did, and she was a great sinner"), it becomes obvious that that this is indeed a man living in his own universe - one disturbingly nurtured by his surroundings. Schwaiger's film is not just a psychological portrait of a Nazi, it also makes clear the close relations between Franco's Spain and the Third Reich, particularly in giving refuge to Nazis after the War. It reveals an ugly side of Spain, where Spaniards tolerate such monsters in their midst, allow them to vent their opinions, and live in the splendor of Marbella's sun without a hint of remorse. It begs the question, how many more Hafners are swimming one lane over? Or sitting beside us on the bus? According to Hafner, in Spain at least, it's hundreds. This is a very different kind of Holocaust film, but one that may open some eyes to the complicity of certain countries in continuing to harbor Nazi criminals. If only Schwaiger had focused a bit more on those who knowingly make Hafner's life so comfortable, others might think twice before joining their ranks. So far, Hafner's Paradise has only been screened at several international film festivals. Here's hoping it makes its way to every Spanish cinema.