Watching Holocaust films in Berlin

Sixty-fourth annual Berlinale International Film Festival screens two new documentaries about WWII-era Germany, including one by Israeli director

Heinrich Himmler with his daughter Gudrun in Vanessa Lapa's 'The Decent One.' (JTA)
Heinrich Himmler with his daughter Gudrun in Vanessa Lapa's 'The Decent One.' (JTA)

JTA — Watching Holocaust-related documentaries is a disturbing experience in itself, let alone seeing them in Germany.

Imagine standing in line in a Berlin theater for a film about Nazi war criminal Heinrich Himmler and having the ticket-taker smilingly tell you, in German of course, to “Enjoy,” just as he did for the thriller or love story that just let out.

That’s the way things were at the recently-concluded 64th annual Berlinale International Film Festival, which screened two new documentaries — including the world premiere of Israeli filmmaker Vanessa Lapa’s documentary on Himmler — and 1945 footage for an unfinished film on the liberation of concentration and death camps.

Lapa’s “Der Anständige” (The Decent One) is hardly enjoyable, but it’s interesting indeed, providing insight into the ”normalcy” of this rabid anti-Semite who in 1943 told German SS officers that “to have remained decent” in the face of “a hundred corpses lying together, 500 or a thousand” … “has toughened us.”

In Lapa’s film, we see and feel the schizophrenia of the family man and killer. In early letters between Himmler and his wife, Marga, she playfully calls him nasty and he promises to be naughty when he sees her again. These dark terms of endearment dry up and disappear as Himmler’s real-life murderous sadism becomes full blown.

Lapa made the film using archival footage as well as a collection of hundreds letters, notes and photos, even recipe books that her father bought from an Israeli collector several years ago. Sitting today in a bank vault in Tel Aviv, these items reportedly had been swiped from the Himmler home by U.S. soldiers in May 1945, then picked up by Israeli collector Chaim Rosenthal at a Belgian flea market in the 1970s.

Reportedly, the Lapa family wants to donate the material to an archive but is concerned that some Himmler descendants may demand their restitution.

Meanwhile, British filmmaker Andre Singer’s work in progress, “Night will Fall,” illustrates the challenges of documenting the liberation of concentration camps and death camps and includes excerpts from the “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” – film made up of footage from British, Soviet and American liberators, which also was shown in its entirety at the festival (a fragment entitled “Memory of the Camps” was presented at the festival in 1984).

None of these films is easy to watch. But in “Night Will Fall”, the filmmaker mediates between us and the grim scenes that met liberating troops in the spring of 1945. We learn about the decisions made to document the aftermath of the atrocities and to film local citizens who were forced to witness and assist in the burial of thousands of bodies.

The gruesome material is couched in the context of how British filmmaker Sidney Bernstein enlisted his friend Alfred Hitchcock to edit the footage, how much he wanted the world to see the film, and yet how it soon became — if one can apply a modern term — “politically incorrect” to throw Nazi Germany’s crimes in the faces of average Germans. The film was stowed away for decades, as the Western Allies and Soviet Union tried to remake Germany in their own images.

The documentary’s title refers to the original Hitchcock-Bernstein script: “Unless the world learns the lessons these pictures teach, night will fall.”

The Berlin film festival was started in former West Berlin in 1951 on the initiative of Oscar Martay, film officer of the American military administration in Germany. Over the years it has shown numerous Holocaust-related feature films and documentaries, including German director Lutz Hachmeister’s “The Goebbels Experiment” and Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski’s “A Film Unfinished,” based on archival Nazi propaganda footage taken in the Warsaw Ghetto.

There is certainly an audience for such films here. Nicola Galliner, founding director of the Jewish Film Festival Berlin and Potsdam, which marks its 20th year on March 30, believes “Germans are just as traumatized by World War II as perhaps the victims are, and I think they are very fascinated by it.”

Which may explain why the films keep on coming. Oscar-winning Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky (“The Counterfeiters,” 2008) just released a new feature – “Das radikal Böse” (Radical Evil) – based on the mass shootings of at least 2 million Jews in Eastern Europe. He told a recent audience that he wanted to show how normal-seeming young men could become mass murderers, but he did not want to excuse their actions.

It’s a fine line – how do you depict what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil” without exonerating criminals as being “just like us” or incriminating everyone else for our potential to commit evil?

In the end, it’s certainly not “enjoyable” to view these films. But ultimately they dispel Himmler’s chilling prediction in 1943: that the murder of Europe’s Jews was “a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.”

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