German Cinematic Reckoning

by | Apr 6, 2020 | 0 comments

A Perspective of How German Films Chose to Remember and Learn from Nazism and World War II

In the Michael Moore documentary Where to Invade Next? (2015), the American filmmaker goes around the world looking for ideas that other countries have implemented in their society that he might be able to bring back to the States. In a sense, Moore is showing us how many other countries do things much better than the United States. He looks at the free universities in Slovenia, the institutional feminism of Finland, the friendly working-hours in Germany, etc.

It is in the last country mentioned that he also finds an incredible reckoning with their dark past. Throughout Germany there are clear and blunt commemorative plaques indicating where persecuted people had lived before they were killed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. Moore compares this to the lack of recognition of the United States in regards to slaves and Native Americans. There are no monuments to the horrors that happened, and in fact prominent anti-abolitionists still have statues erect in state buildings, while museums in the southern states blanket the slave trade that occurred in their ports by simply calling it “other goods.” Hollywood has had a different take in terms of racism and slavery, but it’s taken it a much longer and more arduous process to realize it than the German film industry, which took on Nazism head-on.         

Slavery was finally abolished in the United States by the end of the Civil War in 1865, but the subsequent art produced, coming into the nascent years of Hollywood, wouldn’t indicate that much had been learned. One of the most praised films of early American cinema was The Birth of a Nation (1915), that depicted horrid scenes of triumph of the Ku Klux Klan against black-faced actors acting beast-like to portray African-Americans. It was reported that the President at the time, Woodrow Wilson claimed: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” It was only more than 50 years later when Sidney Poitier became a movie star that more accurate portrayals of the tribulations of African-Americans in the Unites States were made. Both the supposedly “racist” South and Nazi Germany were the losers in their respective wars, but their grips to the past differed immensely. While the approach by those in the American South was tepid at best, Germany seemed to rush to revise its history and the motivations that led its country down such a dark path. Films such as The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), Das Boot (1981), and Downfall (2004) showed German filmmakers analyzing the different parts of German society that led and were affected by the nationalist era of the 1940s.

The Marriage of Maria Braun by director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a radical film in its time, not because of its look at post-war Germany, but because of its portrayal of female characters. The internalization of the horrors of WWII and the role that Germany had played in it were fully internalized by the late 70s when Maria Braun came out; thus its take on post-war Germany wasn’t as fascinating as the idea of female liberation. Nevertheless, the film is deeply ingrained with a look and feel of a post-War Germany that was still coming to terms with reality. Fassbinder uses his medium to further explore the common-people’s view of the war and their conversion to fascism. The film follows Maria Braun, the wife of a German military officer Hermann Braun, who adapts to the new life in West Berlin, being occupied by American troops. The film opens with Maria and Herman getting married in a government building, standing in front of a picture of Hitler. The couple are suffering the Berlin bombings, and end up signing their marriage certificate in the rubble of the street. The resulting feelings of Maria after the war, however, are a mix of wild liberation and a cemented sense of loyalty to the old regime. Throughout the film she has affairs, one of the more “radical” elements of the film at the time of its release, but while her lovers fall for her, she continually rejects them, claiming her sense of loyalty and her true heart to be with Hermann. Meanwhile, Hermann himself is jailed for murder, with no clear prospect of when he’ll come out.

This sense of futile loyalty to a man who has no present or future, symbolizes that many Germans were left confused as to what they should feel in terms of the old regime in comparison with the new. Fassbinder’s tone, however, doesn’t ridicule Maria or the symbolic Germans from being caught up in the past and “what could have been.” Instead he shows that this was an emotionally blinding aspect for many Germans, the transition could not be done in a mere snap of fingers. The German auteur contrasts this with the incredible liberty and freedom that came to German citizens in the power vacuum of the late 1940s and 1950s. Maria relishes this freedom with no feeling of guilt whatsoever, sleeping with a black American officer, getting a serious job, and finding incredible autonomy with her sexual liberty. These events symbolize the German economic miracle that saw the country rebuild itself into a powerful nation in the immediate decades after the war. We see this wild side of Maria rage as it is let free, and yet she also attempts to restrain herself when things trigger the past; she ends up murdering her black lover when Hermann comes back from war, she alienates her bosses and co-workers after visiting Hermann in jail, and she pushes away her family and friends when attempting to find a house for her and Hermann. It’s an incredibly tragic story of indecision, and Fassbinder tacks on a depressing ending where a reunited Maria and Hermann die in an accidental gas explosion in their home, having only been together for mere days since their marriage. In the background of these last scenes can be heard the 1954 World Cup Final between West Germany and Hungary, in which West Germany ended up winning; the national unity and fervor that has erupted contrasts with the deaths of Maria and Hermann, both of who had been participants in an extreme side of the nationalist spectrum. In a tongue-in-cheek way, Fassbinder is showing us different forms of nationalist passion: sports and fascism, with the latter having no place in society, as Fassbinder literally blows them out of existence. However, Fassbinder also addresses that the horrors of Nazism were being completely ignored as the country and world moved forward; there were conspirators (one might argue Maria was one) that were reaping the rewards of the accelerating German economy. Being in such a delicate state of reconstruction, Maria Braun shows that Germans chose to look the other way in the immediate aftermath of the war, Fassbinder indirectly asks the question whether this was a moral thing to do or not? Would the retribution for Nazis and their collaborators have to come through sheer luck, like the gas explosion that engulfs Maria and Hermann, or are the Germans bold enough to take their past head on yet?

Das Boot could have been blamed for starting the submarine movies craze of the late 80s and 90s, with American blockbusters such as The Abyss (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990), and Crimson Tide (1995). The German film became the most Oscar-nominated foreign-language film in history, with six, until its record was broken by another WWII film Life is Beautiful (1997). (Surprisingly it wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Film). In the German film we follow the crew of a German U-boat as they attempt to enforce the blockade on the British islands in 1941. The film stays mostly in the claustrophobic interiors of the submarine, where director Wolfgang Petersen delivers an image of total disconnect from the outside world as well as with the war’s ideologies. War films throughout history have analyzed how in battle the actual motivations for soldiers quickly fade away, leaving instead the animalistic instinct to survive. Given that most WWII films made by Americans, British, and French (who were on the Allied victory side), portrayed all Germans and moustache-twirling villains, Das Boot showed that the actual Nazi sailors were mere boys that were as confused and terrified as those firing at them. The film would seem to be more prone to criticism and controversy, as it was sympathizing with German WWII soldiers for the general public. In the premiere in Los Angeles, there was a cheer when the opening title-card explained that 30,000 out of the 40,000 German sailors that served on U-boats didn’t return; however, by the end of the film the entire audience gave it a standing ovation.

 There are various scenes in the film that indicate this disconnect of the sailors with the Nazi ideology; in the many dinner scenes the Captain and Chief both mock the medals they’ve gotten for their service (the Iron Cross was the highest honor). The First Officer is portrayed as a heavily indoctrinated aristocrat who came from Mexico to the “call of the fatherland” –he is continuously the only sailor who cares for his impeccable uniform and who shaves. The rest of sailors, including the Captain and high-ranking officers despise the German propaganda and ideological machine, with the Captain screaming for German patriotic music to be turned off; instead the crew chooses the British nationalist song: “It’s a Long Way To Tipperary,” to which the entire crew knows the lyrics to. The First Officer, furious, leaves his dinner and storms to his quarters. The view is of a group of men that has little regard for the motivations of the war, not taking the ideologies as seriously as the upper-class seem to. Many of the mistakes made by the crew that lead to their near death comes from the desire to see battle, an idea that clashes with the classical depiction of German Nazis as being calculated and controlled. In the last act of the film, when the U-boat is refueling in Vigo, Spain they encounter Nazi officers serving in the navy; they are portrayed as heavy and gluttonous during the feast they prepare. When greeting the mucky U-boat crew they mistake the clean First Officer for the captain. The scene shows that there was a wealth of diversity in the German ranks, with the high-classed and educated taking on the more ideological aspects of Nazism, while the lower-classed sailors were simply toiling away for their own survival. This analysis of class inequality can also be seen in the assignment of the U-boat to port in Southern France, having to cross the heavily guarded Gibraltar pass. The order is a suicide mission at best, and while the U-boat crew nearly dies at the bottom of the ocean, their sheer determination and will helps them survive.

The film ends with the crew returning home, supposedly to the highest honors, however, they are nearly all gunned down in an air raid, with the Captain looking at his sinking submarine with his dying breath. The ending indicates the tragedy and injustices that were suffered by these sailors for the sake of a cause they never believed in. It is an example of how a well-made humanistic analysis of history and people can lead many to understand why things happened and sympathize with the tragedy to all. 

Downfall for its part looks at the more “obvious” aspect of WWII Germany: the Nazi regime itself. The film looks at the last days of Hitler’s regime as he hunkers down in his Bunker in Berlin, gripping on to his dream of a 1,000-year Reich even as it literally crumbles around him. The film is not a sympathetic view of Hitler, but rather seeks to understand the motivations behind his most egregious character. It is easy to simply throw a villain tag on someone and to abandon the attempt to understand such a transformation. In many American films, this has been the easiest path, while recounting stories of their own heroes, a black-and-white villain served perfect purposes for the antagonist. However, director Oliver Hirschbiegl, seeks to understand and humanize Hitler in order have his film serve as a realistic cautionary tale. The film very much serves the purpose of the famous quote by Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot learn from history are bound to repeat it.” The film looks at Hitler as he blindly hangs on to a deus ex machina army to come and rescue him. His blind faith in his strength and his vision is such that he refuses to flee to strategize the war from somewhere else, and when all is doomed he chooses to kill himself. A scene in the film has the Fuhrer lost in thought staring at a painting of 18th century Prussian monarch Frederick the Great, who was one of the most respected military commanders in Europe of his time; this reminisce of Hitler hints at his motivations coming from a sense of nationalism rooted in passionate moments from the past. The movie also showcases many generals and their families refusing to flee Berlin or negotiate a peace after they experienced the consequences when Germany surrendered in WWI. Multiple generals reference WWI, and how they will not be subject to humiliation again; this hints at how the Nazi movement was rooted in pride that had been severely damaged. The sense of maintaining pride is the driving force of the entire film and the source of motivation for nearly all of the characters. Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge is our narrator and a scene near the end has her confessing a fear of returning home and admitting that she was wrong about the Nazi regime and their ideas. Having dived so deeply into this new movement in Germany, rooted in the sense of hurt pride, many of the high command of the Nazis couldn’t conceive the idea that they had been wrong; it would mean that their entire reality that they had shaped so carefully was a lie. This failure to recognize their reality is what led many to take their own lives, unable to fathom the possibility of a world in which they had failed. The film properly showcases this fanaticism with the character of Magda Goebbels, who poisons all of her children because of her denial that they could survive in a different world.

 Downfall, therefore, is as much a psychological analysis of the Nazis as it is a historical recounting of the last days of Hitler. The film’s most powerful message, is in its final scene where the real Traudl Junge is interviewed; she speaks of internalizing regret: “All these horrors I’ve heard of during the Nurnberg process, these six million Jews, other thinking people or people of another race, who perished. That shocked me deeply. But I hadn’t made the connection with my past. I assured myself with the thought of not being personally guilty. And that I didn’t know anything about the enormous scale of it. But one day I walked by a memorial plate of Sophie Scholl in the Franz-Joseph-Strasse. I saw that she was about my age and she was executed in the same year I came to Hitler. And at that moment I actually realized that a young age isn’t an excuse. And that it might have been possible to get to know things.”

The film acts as an agent of Germany itself in taking up the blame of the of horror, bloodshed, and decimation the Nazis wreaked, but it also showcases that one of the collaborators herself is able to understand, with time, how wrong and unforgivable these events were. The blindness of people sympathetic with the Nazi party make them tragic characters steeped in ignorance instead of maniacal villains. As with The Marriage of Maria Braun, Downfall seeks to show that the transition process from one reality to another would be tough, but unlike Fassbinder’s piece, it argues that recognition of wrong-doing and self-reform are possible.

 People throughout history have made horrible decisions and mistakes that have taken its toll with millions of innocent lives. It would obviously be much more comfortable to simply sweep these terrifying events from the past and attempt to forget about them, but by suppressing the digestion of such atrocities, the ability to stopper their evolution and wipe their effects out entirely becomes harder. Abandoning subjects only allows them to fester and mutate, giving way, for example, to the violent and horrid racism being waged in the United States in the present day. Germany had a tough job of having a divided state during the entire Cold War, as well as the job of rebuilding their entire infrastructure after the infamous WWII bombings; however, that didn’t stop them from putting a lot of effort in learning, cataloguing, and showing future generations their real history. Germany has not been exempt from the rise of far-right movements after WWII, however, or of rampant racism after the mass migration of refugees in the 2010s from the Middle-East. The far-right parties have been gaining more seats and momentum with the passing years, and discrimination stories of Syrians and Turks paint a dark picture of the ‘renewed’ German society. But such evidence shouldn’t be a reason to give up efforts of education and recognition of past atrocities entirely. The ideals of racism and discrimination have been rooted in human-kind for centuries and will not be as easily wiped away with a few decades of cultural enlightenment. Recognizing a certain past existed and that it was horrid is the first step to gradually turning public opinion towards a more tolerant path. The fact remains that the progressive peoples and parties of Germany continue to accept as many refugees as they can, implementing integration programs, and calling out racists when they can. Things may look bleak in the fight against racism and white-supremacy, but in Germany, seeing how far they’ve come in less than a century in their attitudes towards the different and the foreign, one might say the tide is finally turning.

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