Dog's Dinner

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Monday, January 10, 2005

Hitler: The Movie, Part 1

One of the nice things about living in Europe is that, while American films often come out later (anywhere from two weeks to six months or longer) here than in America, films from neighboring regions of the Continent, naturally enough, tend to come out sooner. A few days ago I went and saw the new German film Der Untergang, about the last days of Hitler, featuring the formidable actor Bruno Ganz, the fallen angel from Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (or Heaven Over Berlin in the original title; I mean to write something about such changes eventually) and The American Friend, and Eric Rohmer's Marquise of O, in a phenomenal performance as the demonic Fuehrer. So far as I know, the film has yet to be released in the States (as always, please correct me if I'm wrong). Though I saw it in the original German with Polish subtitles, the title, curiously enough, flashed onscreen in English: Downfall. (At this, I couldn't help thinking of the flippant title of a book by the British comedian Spike Milligan, "Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall," which I never read, but saw somewhere, perhaps used to own a long time ago, or my older brother did.)

Before saying anything more about the film, I wish to briefly consider the old question whether in fact it is appropriate for there to be artistic re-creations of such horrible people as Hitler and such horrific events as took place in Nazi Germany. Usually, so far as I know, this has come up in regard to such depictions of the Holocaust as Schindler's List and The Pawnbroker, which tell the stories mostly of the victims and perhaps a few low-level Nazi thugs (and of course, in films like Schindler's List and the excellent Good Evening Mr. Wallenberg, others who had the power to save Jews; the tagline for the latter was "Schindler saved hundreds of Jews. Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands," which I thought was not a great tagline). In the film Auto Focus, it was posed by the actor protagonist's wife in regard to the TV show "Hogan's Heroes," with her sarcastic gibe about "the new genre of Holocaust comedy," a comment both anachronistic in usage [the term "the Holocaust" was not current in the mid-1960s] and erroneous in content [Nazi POW camps were not the same as death camps], but presaging [actually, post-dating, but presaging in the world of the film] the lamentable attempt at "Holocaust tragicomedy" by Roberto Benigni. A venerable ancestor of mine, who had in fact been opposed to America entering the war at least until Pearl Harbor, disapproved of Chaplin's Great Dictator, apparently because he thought it made light of the sufferings of Hitler's victims. (It is unclear whether he actually saw the film; I rather doubt it.)

Both Chaplin's and Benigni's films, as well as both versions of To Be Or Not To Be, and indeed "Hogan's Heroes," are nobly anti-Nazi in their intent, but nonetheless run the risk of trivializing the enormities of Nazi barbarism and cruelty. (I suppose technically the same objection could, somewhat Jesuitically perhaps, be raised against Orwell's Animal Farm, which does after all have its funny moments, and which was written while Stalin was still in power [not only still in power, but still very much alive-- it is impressive in its way that he managed to maintain his stranglehold on thought, expression, politics and culture for THREE YEARS after he died] and was in fact posing more of a threat to the West than he had since before the war. [I certainly don't want to get into the ridiculous debate about whether Hitler or Stalin, Nazism or Communism, was worse. I find the idea that such a debate can be resolved somewhat obscene. Though I have great respect for George Steiner, I've never understood how he could say that Solzhenitsyn's likening of the two regimes was a "moral imbecility" or words to that effect.] [Update 8/18/2006. I hold to this in the sense that one could never say to a victim of either tyranny, or a victim's relative, that "It could be worse...". However I do find persuasive some of Hitchens and Zizek's arguments for Nazism having been inherently worse-- Hitchens also quotes Robert Conquest, no loony leftist he, as saying that Nazism was worse because "It feels worse."] But Orwell's fable ends on a note of the bleakest pessimism, which perhaps redeems it from the complacency of comedy.) I remember when I was sixteen watching, with a group of hysterically laughing children, a slapstick comedy with Louis de Funes and Bourvil, two zany, brilliant, occasionally tiresome French comedians, where they spend much of the film being chased around by Nazis; I was offended in some deep way by the portrayal of all Nazis as dolts and oafs, obscuring the sad truth that many of them were clever devils; the same criticism applies to Chaplin, "Hogan" and Lubitsch/Brooks (to his credit, it applies less to Benigni, as I just realized when I remembered the Nazi riddler, who is clever, yet blind).

Indeed, there may be something inherently trivializing about comedy, including satire. My friend Jim told me once that most comedy doesn't really speak to him, I think he meant because it leaves something out (although the poet Patrick Kavanagh said that "Tragedy is underdeveloped comedy"). The wildly popular film (and musical of the film) The Producers documents both the widespread if not universal agreement that Nazi-centred entertainment is in the worst possible taste, and the strangely irresistible lure of Nazi-themed kitsch.
But what about "beautiful" films? With "phenomenal performances," as I referred to Ganz's above. Wasn't it Adorno who said there can be no poetry after Auschwitz?
Should attempts to deal with the Holocaust be limited to documentary like Shoah or The Sorrow and the Pity, or documentary realism like The Wannsee Conference (a re-enactment, using the official transcript, of the SS conference where the plans for the Final Solution were agreed upon, in Hitler's absence but with his explicit approval)? Or do even such efforts as those lend the imprimatur of art to hideous, inhuman modes of thought and being? It's sort of a mirror image of the question, answered by Muslims and Orthodox Jews in the negative, whether it is fitting to depict God and his angels and prophets in representative visual terms. And indeed, when it comes to Christianity, films like The Passion of the Christ make me feel that it is better not to make movies about Christ, although Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew and, slightly less so, Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (with Telly Savalas as Pilate, John Wayne as the centurion who quoth, "Truly, this man was the son of God," and Max von Sydow as Jesus) show that it's a fine and worthy enterprise.

I leave you with these slightly pompous, but, I hope, thought-provoking questions before moving on to my impressions of the actual film.


At 7:48 PM, Blogger Small Man said...

Great post Tim. I have started to think there is something deeply perverse about attempting a thoroughly faithful and elaborate recreation of the most awful scenes of the Holocaust. Poetry, which only suggests and recalls, is one thing. But thinking of all the technical people building imitations of gas chambers, hiring thousands of actors to portray the vicious killers and helpless victims of the slaughter, all in order to make a blockbuster, is a little disturbing. On the other hand, recognizing that people are much more likely to learn history from a movie than from a book, perhaps it's noble and necessary to keep reminding us of our past through film. But isn't it better to do it symbolically? Greek tragedy is also about horrible historical (or pseudo-historical) events, but typically the real horror is only described in poetry, and violence not depicted onstage.

Of course that way you are aestheticizing the evil. But no matter the intentions of the filmmakers, it's certain that part of the box office success of Schindler's List is the sick thrill of watching everything take place, in a context that ultimately flatters the viewer. Using the Holocaust for _that_ end, sheer visceral excitement, must be wrong.

I say, poetry! 'Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night.'
Reading that, you can mourn with a real victim.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger jimeye said...

Great, thought provoking post. I have often thought of the inherent problem of the re-enactment of gruesome and horrible events but more on that in another comment. I have to go to work now. For now I would like to comment on the stoic past of Jim who once reveled in misery and attempted to make his emotional wounds medals of honor--comedy speaks to him now, it probably spoke to him then but somehow it was better to be locked in a Bergmanesque landscape of personal sorrow. There was something beautiful and intoxicating about it, something romantic. A bit like hell on earth actually or at least a certain kind of hell. Which might tie in briefly ever so briefly (as I grow later and later for work) with the post at hand--the depiction of hell on earth. Do we need to see it to be reminded and thus avoid it? Or will reminding us of it only perpetuate the problem? Or even glorify it to a certain degree? Does the beginning of Saving Private Ryan scare us enough that we never want to experience that event or does it pump people up so they want to go kill people? I guess all I have are questions. Off to work, leaving the visions of hell behind me.


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