Face to face with history

Hamish Ford

Heimat 3

Heimat 3

This year’s Festival of German Films presents a culture increasingly engaged with the political, economic, social and personal problems that have emerged in a reunified Germany at the epicentre of the trans-national experiment that is the European Union. The reunification theme is most extensively addressed in Heimat 3, one of this year’s highlights. There are also the latest insider reflections on the Nazi period, controversially addressed in the festival’s other key film, Downfall.

Hitler the human

Directed by festival guest Oliver Hirschbiegel, Downfall (Der Untergang) has been a commercial, if controversial, hit in Germany. This first German account of the last days of the Nazi regime inside the Chancellory bunker has attracted criticism for treating Hitler’s inner circle as ‘human.’ Besides Goebbels (who appears pathological), the military and political leaders surrounding Hitler are recognisably ordinary; they could be the servile, if tense, senior advisors surrounding any multinational’s CEO. Downfall refuses to metaphysically ascribe evil to the Nazi regime. The benefit of such a prosaic portrayal is that Nazism can be seen as an exaggerated playing out of radically regressive elements within other historical and political moments in Western culture, including our own.

Although in theory an important advance, the film tends to overplay its demythologising strategy. While it is valid to undermine a view of the Nazi period which pretends that present-day politicians, business leaders and ordinary people wouldn’t or don’t collaborate with the power elite of the day (no matter how appalling its ideology or actions), the film seems to assume that the only recognisable humanity is a redemptive, ‘positive’ one. Hence there are often overly sympathetic portrayals of Nazi figures, belying their complicity in the horror of Nazism, the war and the Holocaust. Professor Schenk, for example, is portrayed as a selfless medical doctor tending the wounded, even though in reality he was a senior SS and Wehrmacht officer implicated in experiments using Dachau concentration camp prisoners.

The most controversial figure is the seemingly ‘passive’ or even sympathetic witness through whose eyes the film unfolds, Hitler’s 25 year old secretary Traudl Junge. She looks on with blank bewilderment and apparent compassion for her boss as the Nazi facade implodes. The film ends with the real-life aged Junge describing her realisation that ignorance and naivety are no excuse. Meanwhile the presentation of Hitler himself is far more complex, and truly disturbing. As played by master Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, the Fuhrer looks like a fallen hero shaking with Parkinson’s disease and a mercurial temper wrought from the failure of his warped dreams–”a would-be Siegfried who has collapsed into Alberich”, as David Denby puts it, invoking the Wagnerian mythology of power-deformation (The New Yorker, Feb 7, 2005). In a horrible and darkly moving performance this Hitler is both atrocious and almost humorously pathetic.

In the film’s determination to bring Hitler’s regime down to earth, Nazism has never seemed so banal. But while this may resonate with Hannah Arendt’s seminal analysis of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), in Downfall it often seems to result in a kind of subdued reassurance, as yet again we see the 20th century’s central monster resuscitated and satisfyingly killed off. This is emotionally understandable, but seems more the product of fear and ritual catharsis than analytical insight. Downfall is definitely worth seeing and arguing about–it is far preferable for a nation to over normalise or de-mythologise the darkest moment of its history than to re-write or avoid it entirely.

Heimat: intimate epic

Weighty themes are played out on a much larger canvas with the latest instalment of the Heimat series, written and directed by Edgar Reitz. This is the third cycle of Reitz’s films around the theme of 20th Century German cultural identity and ‘heimat’ (the closest English translation is ‘homeland’). The first 2 were released in the 1980s and 90s respectively. Heimat 3–A Chronicle of Endings and Beginnings (Heimat 3–Chronik einer Zeitenwende) comprises 6 films covering the period from 1989 to 2000.

The emphasis is on personal and small-scale layers of social history as the films follow the fortunes of famous conductor Hermann (played by festival guest Henry Arnold) and singer Clarissa, who meet on the night of November 9, 1989–the evening the Berlin Wall came down. They impulsively rekindle an ancient affair and buy an old cottage outside Schabbachm overlooking the Rhine River near the Luxembourg border (Hermann’s fictionalised rural hometown from the first Heimat series). They then set about rebuilding their blatantly symbolic house once occupied by a German Romantic poet. The first film in the series proceeds to set up both the hopefulness and one-sided economic and political reality of a reunified Germany, with East German builders and engineers coming to the West to rebuild the house.

Like its predecessors, Heimat 3’s intimate approach to epic themes is both a central strength and weakness. Sometimes I was yearning for a more ‘big-picture’ context to glean a deeper, more politically engaged historical analysis of post-reunification Germany, but also to nullify criticisms that Reitz soft-pedals the more politically problematic aspects of the notion of ‘heimat.’ Although representing ultra urbane values, Hermann is very tolerant of his family and the village from which he once fled, and his character is rather bland, too perfect. One angst-ridden visit to a brothel accounts for the only time in which he appears anything but a successful yet sensitive, attractive and highly cultured German man who wants to enjoy the bucolic charms of the Rhine Valley when not conducting in the concert halls of Europe. His profession could have been more thoroughly utilised to comment upon Germany’s cultural heritage and the role of art in social, cultural and political change. Then again this may have detracted from Reitz’s rural vision of reconciliatory ‘heimat.’

As it develops, Heimat 3 becomes more adventurous, dark and complex in its intimate yet epic portrayal of post-reunification Germany. While the whole enterprise at times plays out as high-class soap opera, it is definitely worth devoting a day to see these films. The sheer ambition and scope of the entire Heimat series makes for a substantial dramatic engagement with contemporary European history and culture. That such an engagement comes from a filmmaker working in Germany, a modern yet tradition-obsessed country that has been home to the very best and very worst of Western culture, makes for compelling viewing.

Reconciliations

While it is not as immediately concerned with reunification as Heimat 3, the union of East and West is also a theme in last year’s most commercially successful German film, Go for Zucker. Directed by Dani Levy, it tells the amusing story of a pious rabbi from the former West Germany who meets his much poorer, ‘Godless Communist’ brother from East Berlin when their mother dies and they have to resolve their differences before her will can be read. Described by the festival as “the first post-1945 German-Jewish comedy made in Germany”, the film offers a humanist, reconciliatory message while making some telling social points about a self-described “loser of reunification.”

Other films to screen at the festival this year include: Agnes and His Brothers, another humanist comedy about siblings (centred this time around sex and politics); Kebab Connection, in which a young Turkish hip-hopper aspires to make the first German kung-fu film; Napola (directed by festival guest Dennis Gansel), the story of 2 boys in 1942 who attend a training school to become elite Nazi soldiers; And I Love You All, a documentary about a Major who worked for the GDR’s Stasi secret police for 20 years; and Música Cubana (produced by Wim Wenders), the semi-fictional tale of the formation of a band made up of younger generation Cuban musicians.

Festival of German Films 05, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra; April 14-May 1

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 24

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005