Dog's Dinner

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Hitler, the Movie: Part 2

It's rare that I see eye to eye with pompous New Republic film critic Stanley Kauffmann, but I find almost nothing to quarrel with in his review of Downfall. (Other than the somewhat distorting tagline that the magazine attached to it.) Said review will therefore substitute for the promised discussion of said film. Alas, it's for subscribers only. Such is the way of the world. No subscription? Better go and see the movie.

I have a few observations of my own, but they're more concerned with tropes exemplified in the film than with the film itself.

It's strange, but my experience of this more or less nonfiction film suffered (or did it gain? maybe so, perversely) from the fact that I was constantly reminded of other, Hollywood or Hollywoodish films.

There was the secretary-audition scene where the prettiest one wins, as in Schindler's List.
There was the performance of children from the same family singing sweetly for guests of an evening and helping them forget about the menace of (coming/ending) war, as in The Sound of Music. (Here there are six Goebbels Family Singers, as opposed to the seven Von Trapps-- although here, if my admittedly imperfect ear did not deceive me, some of the [very sweet] singing was slightly off-tune (warming the cockles of Pauline Kael's ghost's heart, no doubt). Later we get to see them given a cyanide pill by their mother-- contradicting my presumably false memory of documentary stills in Tarkovsky's My Name Is Ivan showing the Goebbels family being shot by Allied liberators-- or did I dream that? Someone straighten me out.)
And there was the general decadent, champagne-and-vodka ambiance of some fairly lucid Nazis accepting the fact of the war being lost, as in another great Christopher Plummer movie, Triple Cross. While the one true True Believer screams defiant oaths, and a number of imbecilic swine are prepared to commit suicide (by firing on an overwhelming number of Soviet troops) in his memory after his death.

Which brings me to what may be The Heart of the Matter. The focus of sympathy in the film, other than the pretty secretary, is a member of the SS, who is also a doctor, Ernst-Gunther Schenck. He is a real-life historical figure. It is he who argues cogently against mass kamikaze suicide on behalf of a dead man, and in other situations also speaks as the voice of reason and humanism. Like Albert Speer (a more controversial figure, whom the film-- based on the writings of the somewhat Speer-worshipping historian Joachim Fest-- presents opaquely, arguably noble and humanitarian in disobeying Hitler's orders for several months, arguably slick and spineless, a master of the art of self-preservation), he is handsome (a cross between the much swooned-over Brit. Lit. professor at the school where I teach, and my friend from Boulder, the punk rock legend Rich Myers) and intelligent and, unlike Speer, he is visibly driven by a real desire to save lives rather than craven personal ambition.

Much like Yul Brynner in Triple Cross, or Marlon Brando in The Young Lions, or Karl Boehm (and, more movingly, Paul Lukas) in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or the German soldier in Vercors' Silence de la Mer, he is "The Good Nazi."

And I have to say that in the controversy over Brando's distortion of Irwin Shaw's monochrome characterization of Christian Diestl, I side with Brando. It is the actor's job to find the sympathetic side of the character he plays, just as it is the novelist's job (see Small Man's recent comment) to find some sympathy with the characters he writes about, and the fact that Shaw failed to do this did not, even considering the context, authorize him to carp about Brando's necessary, compensatory, and intelligent work.

I appreciate, as any thinking person doubtless can, the beauty of the following gesture by the very talented Daniel Olbrychski:

Outcry as Polish actor slashes Nazi portraits
Exhibition of film stills of actors in Nazi uniform is closed
By Georgina Adam
WARSAW. One of Poland's best known actors and film stars is currently under police investigation and faces a possible prison sentence for slashing a portrait of himself, in an exhibition last year in Warsaw's leading contemporary art gallery. The events happened shortly after "The Nazis" opened at the publicly funded Gallery Zachenta. The show consisted of an uncaptioned series of photographs of actors in Nazi uniform, taken from film stills without the actors' agreement, by the Polish artist Piotr Uklanski. Accompanied by TV cameramen and reporters and as the cameras rolled, the actor Daniel Olbrychski, featured in one of the portraits, entered the gallery, pulled a sword from under his greatcoat and slashed some of the exhibits, then tore the two featuring himself from the wall and left. The choice of the sword was significant: it was one used in a film about a swashbuckling Polish hero and patriot Kmicic. Mr Olbrychski later declared: "I defend the right to say that there are some frontiers of decency which were clearly overstepped in this exhibition, and I reacted violently in the hope that my gesture will highlight my objections. I did it in the spotlight of the camera and flashlights because I wanted for Poland to know about my feeling about such 'artistic practices'. Furthermore I received the agreement of other actors whose portraits were in the show, including the French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo who agreed that I should protest in their name. I can understand that there are opportunistic artists but I cannot understand why the director of such a serious institution as Zachenta has accepted this. Soon Mrs Anda Rottenberg [the director] will organise an exhibition at which she will expose the faces of known actors on lavatory paper because she considers that as we are public figures she is entitled to do so. It is unthinkable." Mrs Rottenberg riposted, "In my opinion the artist Olbrisky is suffering from a lack of popularity and therefore created an event so that he should be in the news. This was vengeance against defenceless creation," and called the police, who closed the show. The controversy continued after Poland's Minister of Culture, Kazimierz Ujazdowski, weighed in and called for it to be reopened, but on condition that it was accompanied by a commentary explaining the role of Nazism and the meaning of the exhibition. He added that national cultural institutions must not be the place of exhibitions which could be interpreted as praise for Nazism. With Poland (where painful memories of the brutal German World War II occupation are still fresh) following events day by day, a leading academic, Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, noted that, "In films Nazis are presented as impeccable. They are clean, in well-pressed uniforms; the actors associated with these roles personify the Fascist vision of superman". However, in an open letter 15 Polish artists and critics declared that, "It is in bad faith to interpret the exhibition as a glorification of Fascism; it draws attention to the undoubted fascination of cinema and mass media with Hitler's henchmen". The show has already been seen without incident in London, Berlin and Frankfurt, and some of the works have been acquired by the New York Jewish Museum. Finally, curator Adam Szymczyk, following the artist's request, decided to close the show. Uklanski had refused to make changes, explaining that, "It is a restriction of the freedom of speech when the Ministry of Culture makes decisions about the programmes in cultural institutions financed by public money, and which, in principle, are independent." (Museum Security Mailinglist Reports, December 17, 2000)

It is cheering to find, over 60 years after "Mourir pour Danzig?", the incredible Belmondo, symbol of all that is best in Frenchmen, joining forces with the inimitable Olbrychski against "The Nazis". But the fact is, as dyspeptic Brit reactionary "Paul Johnson" (the tiresomest late-vintage Albert Finney performance since "Kingsley Amis") noted in a recent, atypically lucid and cogent Spectator column inspired by the Prince Harry controversy, the Nazis' tawdry glamour, e.g. the Death's Head insignia and the sexy boots, not to mention the coveted professorship in Fascist Mysticism at Bologna, is one reason why we rate them worse than Stalin's drab functionaries. Because Arendt (and Weil)'s truth about the Banality of Evil has failed to sink in. As has the fact that many Nazi Party members were basically good people deeply committed to a destructive and genocidal and therefore, obviously, evil organization.

There was some controversy over Jack Clay's production of Richard III in the 1983 Colorado Shakespeare Festival, when I was nine years old-- fresh from my triumph as Second Non-speaking "Macduff Child" (non-speaking, but plenty of screaming) the previous year, I tried out for the part of the little Duke of York (the younger of the Little Princes in the Tower), and was rejected, to my (and my family's) bitter disappointment. That, in case you were wondering, was not the main controversy, which had to do with Clay's decision, while setting most of the action in some baroque facsimile of late medieval England, to present some of Richard's men as SS men (a Tuchmanesque "Director's Note" invoked Vietnam). When I heard that there were "Storm Troopers" in the play, I of course imagined George Lucas' sterile white plastic automatons stomping about the Mary Rippon Theater. So I was disappointed to find they were mere SS men. Which, I think, proves my point, that to a child's mind, evil is, or should be, heavy music and fantastic costumes; but to an adult, it should be about actions and consequences.

Oh, and by the way,
Happy Women's Day, everybody!


At 6:47 AM, Blogger Faith Williams said...

We went to see Downfall yesterday with Ed, and I'm glad we went to the afternoon showing, so there was a little recovery time before night and dreams. It was scary, not a movie that leaves you feeling everyone is good at heart, but more a movie that shows how everyone is evil at heart but in radically as well as subtly different ways.

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