I moaned last week about the loss of the two-dimensional evil Nazi. Brushed aside in a tide of political correctness or extreme sensitivity. I think it’s time to talk about what Hollywood has presented us with in its stead. I think it’s interesting to discuss the general trend in the presentation of the Third Reich that we’ve seen emerge in the past year or so.
You could make the case that more considered and mature looks at Hitler’s regime have spent the better part of two decades emerging. It’s fun to look back at Schindler’s List as the first in a long-line of Oscar bait, but it extends much further back to Sophie’s Choice and possibly beyond. In fairness, these generated more than a fair bit of controversy – for example that the novel consciously downplayed the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, or example, and that the film completely ignored that aspect of the book. Still, the discussion over that film was very much focused on the victims of the Nazi government – no body seemed too bothered about the portrayal of the Nazis themselves.
Still, Nazi movies were Oscar gold – particularly for actors. Everything from The Pianist to Life is Beautiful took home major awards and award nominations. That was grand – it became a bit of a grim ritual waiting for the year-end Nazi-themed Oscar contender. It would be harrowing and depressing and downright chilling – and it was right that it should be. Such things are scary and depressing – the fact that they actually happened makes them even moreso.
Then – last year – the wind changed. The Nazi sociopath, so skilfully evoked by Ralph Fiennes as Goethe in Schindler’s List and welcomed home by Christoph Waltz in this year’s Inglourious Basterds, disappeared from our screen. Admittedly there was cinematic precedent. Downfall had been released in German the year before to near-universal acclaim. It documented the last days of Hitler in his bunker facing defeat. I was as impressed as anyone (though it was an hour too long) in the way that it made these historic figures… I won’t say human, because that is too far, but comprehendible. They seemed more real than they ever had before.
That Bruno Ganz didn’t receive a nomination at least for his performance is a crime, but I still think that there’s a link between the critical success of downfall and the subsequent “Nazis as humans” subgenre that we saw last year around about awards season.
Taken individually, there’s arguably very little controversial or offensive about the films – some are solid and thought-provoking, while others are hamfisted and cynical. Not all of them were particularly obvious either. Take Valkyrie. It kinda got lost in the mediocrity of the film itself, but the picture was generating considerable pre-release Oscar buzz around about this time last year. The superstar reteaming of director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie (who had both produced the masterpiece The Usual Suspects) was a tasty prospect and one it was right to anticipate. Unfortunately the team couldn’t pull it quite together, giving us a perfectly adequate and entertaining flick, but one hardly of Oscar calibre.
You might argue that there’s little controversial in Valkyrie. It’s fairly unambiguous. Tom Cruise is good. Adolf Hitler is bad. Bureacracy is almost as bad. And therein lies the problem. The film fairly accurately depicts events, but it skews motivations and character. The film tries to paint the plot as a last ditch attempt to clear Germany’s name – I can still hear Kenneth Branagh intone that they were trying “to show the world that not all of us are like him; otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany” – but the real reasons for the origin plot (at least from the politician’s perspective) was to ensure a better deal from the Allies fast advancing on Berlin (because no one wanted the Russians to reach Berlin first).
It has been pointed out that the film omits the observation by historian Hans Mommsen that several key leaders involved in the plot “earlier took part in the war of racial extermination”. It also leaves out the key concession that these would-be leaders would have sought when suing for peace: that no German would face international tribunals for war crimes or crimes against humanity.
The film omits the involvement (or lack thereof) of Rommel in the plot. Known as The Desert Fox (and respected by his opponents – he even got a barracks named after him at the en dof the war), Rommel had a huge problem with Hitler and had no problem voicing that problem. Whether or not he was involved directly in the plot is up for debate (though the common perception is he had to know), but he was presented with an ultimatum by the SS in the wake of the failure. Opting to save his family embarassment and pain, Rommel took his own life. Regardless of how he would have been portrayed, Rommel didn’t take a side in the failed coup. He seemed quite happy to sit back and let it play out. The movie makes a point of having mid-level administrators and footsoldiers caught in the middle, but their lack of participation seems to be down to bad information or the fact that the decision is simply out of their league (it doesn’t really dwell on it). Rommel was a man who clearly could have made a decision – or, more importantly, the audience could never fool themselves into believing couldn’t make a decision – but he didn’t. He did nothing. Instead, the only upper-crust Germans we see who aren’t members of Hitler’s inner circle are seen to take a stand.
Many critics observed that the point of the film was to exaggerate the resistence to Hitler, even in his own army. It is true that the events occurred and that there were a handful of high-level participants, but there were more high-level participants who knew but didn’t act. It’s the people who didn’t act who bear the brunt of history, who are judged for failing to stand up to tyranny. I know it’s an easy accusation to make retroactively, but I don’t believe the proper response to it is to pretend that the entire upper ranks of German society tried to overthrow Hitler. Such an portrayal avoids the really tough lessons that need to be hammered in: you can’t count on those in power or those above you to oppose evil, because most of them won’t.
Maybe the Academy saw through this ruse, or maybe they just thought it was a crap film. Either way, no major league Oscar nominations for this film.
Another way to avoid the painful inferences that can be gleamed from German history in the mid-twentieth century is throw patronising your audience. To tell them that it’s not their fault. That they were hustled or swindled or that they just didn’t know or understand. This is what The Reader attempted to do. Very badly. The film present us with the story of Hannah, an illiterate ex-Nazi with a thing for younger men and burning down Jews inside churches. The film tries to be gritty by presenting Hannah as the crusty old sort you don’t like to sit next to on a bus, but also tries to explain it wasn’t really her fault because she can’t read. Being illiterate doesn’t mean you’re stupid, nor does it mean that you are a sociopath, despite what award-winning writers and intellegentsia would have you believe. It means you can’t read. Yes, maybe a large percentage of Germans couldn’t read, but that has nothing to do with knowing that extermination of an entire race is wrong. The film implies that the bulk of Germans didn’t know or couldn’t understand what was happening to their country. That ignores the terrifying thing about how the general populace reacted to the Nazi regime: they didn’t want to know, they didn’t try to understand.
You’ll notice that the above two films skirt around the issue of the Holocaust. Valkyrie barely touches on it, and The Reader – though it focuses on the death of those Jews in Hannah’s care – doesn’t show you their gruesome death or Hannah standing by watching. The reason why it doesn’t show you isn’t artisitic or cerebral; it’s purely cynical. Watching that action would destroy all sympathy for Hannah and Winslet in the role – much as watching Goethe’s actions in Schindler’s List destroyed any sympathy for him (hint: that’s not a bad thing; it was meant to and it should).
Still, cynicism evidentally works. Kate Winslet took home an overdue Oscar and the film itself managed to nab an undeserved fifth place – which arguably led to the revisions we’ve seen so far this year. Hmmm….
Good is another example of the humanisation of German war guilt that we saw last year. Part of the almost-as-deserving “get Viggo an Oscar” campaign (which is in session again this year), it serves as a counterpoint to The Reader and Valkyrie. If The Reader tried to explain away the guilt of the common people (by laying a patronising guilt trip on us) and Valkyrie attempted to avoid answering questions about the accountability of those in authority, Good tried to turn the mirror back on the sorts of people who ask these questions. Of course, these movies are all written by people who ask these questions, so the end product is more than a little biased.
The piece is rather ham-fisted and less than engaging, but it seems intent to portray to us how easy it is to get lost in ethically uncertain ground. The problem is that the film treats this as an excuse and a justification rather than a warning. In fairness, it’s hard to deliver the piece without giving us a lead we can (somewhat) sympathise with, but the core of the movie is about how a “good” man (underneath it all) ends up working at a concentration camp. It’s understandably unnerving.
Arguably the best of the selection is also the least complex. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an attempt to explain what happened to children. It’s a terrifyingly daunting task to explain the organised genocide of six million people to a child, but the book and the film make valiant attempts. I have my own problems with the finished project, but I will concede that it works well. There are a few cringeworthy moments – we over hearing the mother argue about the assignment, but shouldn’t she have done that before they moved out here? – but the movie makes no attempt to paint any of the adults involved as good people (even underneath it all).
Thewlis is charming as the patriarch of the household, but we never lose sight of his own perspective on things. The films doesn’t really attempt to justify how he can do what he does, because to do so would patronise us and take blame away from him. The indoctrination of the daughter into Nazi ideology is handled relatively well. What’s stunning is the sheer hatred the film allows us to see. The raw emotion being channeled and focused. No one questions, they let themselves end up caught up in it. And the film doesn’t really expect us to end the film feeling like a bad thing just happened to fundamentally good people. We feel sadness and empathy because we are still human and feeling, but that empathy towards the German family arises from our own distinct understanding of the suffering that they have inflicted. These people were warped and their actions were wrong. They may once maybe have been good people, but they are no more.
It’s a simplistic message that doesn’t leave room for too much ambiguity (but enough to get the audience thinking). That’s good because ambiguity doesn’t belong on these issues. This isn’t healthcare reform or civil rights or the Lisbon referendum (the second time); this isn’t something that warrants debate. We may allow ourselves to try to understand why such a thing happened, but we can’t lose sight of the blame – we can’t justify it, excuse it or mitigate it. And that isn’t a statement on German war guilt, this is a statement on collective responsibility and the capacity for man’s inhumanity to man. We can’t believe that anyone involved in this was ‘good’ at the end of it. Maybe they were before, but that faded and vanished.
I accept that the criticism cuts the other way too. Defiance was criticised for overselling violent Jewish resistence to Nazi occupation, and maybe it did. Maybe it attempted to rewrite history to remove some of the more complex moral facets of the life that the community would have to live in those woods. Maybe it brushed over some tough calls and the consequences of those decisions and maybe it acted out a lewd revenge fantasy where a putdown minority rose up against their oppressors and called it history. It’s something that we really neeed to be careful of. I’m not sure what to make of Hollywood history – and I loved the way Inglourious Basterds toyed with real history – but those films intending to examin the Nazi regime must value honesty above that lauded subjectiveness. These movies don’t represent themselves as broad farce like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Inglourious Basterds, instead the claim to offer answers to some of the most complex philosophical quandries of the past century.
This isn’t an area of history to pretend to get smart about. It isn’t an area of history to pat ourselves on the back for offering a unique perspective. This definitely isn’t an area of history that we should hand out awards for distorting.
It’s just interesting that all those films should come out so close together, with a message so sharp in contrast to the clear black-and-white dichotomy that existed in earlier films. Maybe it’s yet another reflection of a world where we can’t tell our enemies from allies, or maybe we’re simply far enough away from events that the contrast is starting to fade. Either way, I wonder where the trend will go from here.
I am somewhat relieved to see not a single Nazi film on the Oscar slate this year. Great. It means there will be no de facto shoe-ins.
Filed under: Movies | Tagged: good, good film, history, hollywood history, moral ambiguity, Oscars, schindler's list, shades of gray, sophie's choice, the boy in the striped pyjamas, the reader, the third reich, tom cruise, valkyrie, viggo mortensen |