NEW YORK — Anyone with a shred of humanity has wondered just how an average German citizen could go on with his life as the Nazis took power. Anyone with a shred of sense has likely realized it wasn’t all that difficult.
As social scientists like Stanley Milgram have proved, obedience to authority isn’t just a moral escape hatch, it is hardwired into most of our thinking. There have been countless documentaries featuring ex-Nazis who give a variant of “just following orders.” Each one of them is terrifying in its own way.
“A German Life,” which opens in the US on December 22, has the distinction of probably being one of the last. The “star,” if you want to call her that, is Brunhilde Pomsel, a secretary from Josef Goebbels’ propaganda office who died earlier this year at the age of 106.
It is pointless to get angry at Pomsel, and no great effort is made for us to feel sorry for this old woman. A delicate balance is struck; the harsh, high-contrast photography in the film has a distinct dehumanizing effect. Her wrinkled skin is reptilian, as are the sounds she makes while moistening her lips. And yet her stories, mostly mundane in nature, are very relatable. She was, after all, just a person.
Her earliest memories involve her father leaving to fight in World War I. She speaks of a different time, almost superstitious with its strict rules. Later she gets a job as a typist for a man she calls her “dear Dr. Goldberg,” a Jew. A boy asks her out on a date to the Berlin Sportpalast, where she thrilled at the great hall, the music, the “stinking men” — everything except the political speeches that didn’t interest her. “I was just a woman,” she shrugs.
In time the Nazis come to power, and, once again in a man’s company, she cheered Hitler at the Brandenburg Gate. She claims she was oblivious to the racial aspects of the National Socialists, but somehow knew enough not to mention her attendance to Dr. Goldberg or her life-of-the-party Jewish friend Eva.
As Goldberg’s business suffered she found work at a radio station. Rumors swirled that if she joined “The Party” job opportunities would increase. In her most shocking story, Pomsel details the day she officially became a Nazi: She lined up (it was the last day to enroll) accompanied by her Jewish pal, Eva. When she went in the building, Eva sat on a bench. To this day Pomsel moans about the 10 marks (all she had saved) she had to spend to join. Eva, she later found out, was deported in 1943 and died in the camps.
Some of Pomsel’s recollections go on for minutes, others are just snippets. Her fondest memories are of the 1936 Olympic Games where the world came to Berlin and all seemed so sophisticated. Meeting someone from India — or was it Japan? — was like something from a storybook.
She calls Goebbels an elegant man at the office, but unrecognizable (a raging midget) during his fiery, hate-fueled speeches. She explains how people today could never understand what life was like in Germany at that time. “We were under a dome.” Oftentimes she drifts off in poetic ways: “It’s the same for all things. Everything beautiful is also tainted. And whatever is horrible has its bright side.”
She was in Hitler’s bunker at the very end, and still gets teary-eyed hearing of the Fuhrer’s suicide. Not that she loved him (and I believe she is sincere about that) but the shock to her system knowing that the war was over and she was on the losing side. “We were trapped like animals,” she says of the Soviet advancement.
There are no interviewers or other subjects in “A German Life,” just interwoven newsreels, propaganda films and period footage, much of it from the Steven Spielberg archive. Included, fair warning, are some of the most heinous and disturbing images of Jewish victims of Nazi atrocities I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of these films.
The shock of these grotesque moments is well-served. Pomsel claims she had no knowledge of what happened within the camps. (The closest thing to an immoral act she’ll cop to is manipulating field reports: lowering German causality rates, increasing the number of reported rapes by Soviet troops.)
But from our vantage point in the allegedly enlightened present, we know the truth. We know what can happen when governments use fear tactics to dehumanize a minority. We know what people just following orders are capable of.
“A German Life” is not exactly what I’d call a nice night out at the movies. It is an educational document more than anything else, but I don’t want to seem glib about its artistic merits. Its editing is deceptively simple and very effective. One does not come away seething at Pomsel; our anger is directed at the circumstances and institutions that led to her experience. If we are to Never Forget, we must also try, as difficult as it is, to understand.