The War Had Changed Him
Surviving Hitler: A Love Story
Stranger Than Fiction: 30 Nov 2010
“I was very naughty and powerful and stupid,” says Jutta Cords, remembering her attitude as a teenager. She was typical, but she was also living under extraordinary circumstances. As a high school student in Hitler’s Germany, Jutta was surprised to learn from her parents that her maternal grandparents had converted from Judaism to Christianity before she was born. This meant that Jutta would be considered a “half-Jew,” and so could not marry or go to university. She remembers, “It made me very angry, because everything had been made impossible to me.”
As Jutta recalls for Surviving Hitler: A Love Story, when her teachers were replaced by “SS men,” her parents decided that she should go away to school in Switzerland in 1939. While away from home, she heard news of the Fuhrer’s increasingly “crazy” behavior and worried about her parents, unable to leave Berlin. She decided on her own, at just 18 years old, to return by train to the war zone, hoping she would be able to look after her parents. She had no idea then that she would also become of an underground resistance.
Jutta’s memories provide one remarkable framework for John-Keith Wasson’s documentary, winner of this year’s Full Frame Inspiration Award and screening 30 November at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker. Her stories are enhanced on screen by an equally remarkable collection of photos and home movies, some recorded by her mother and father and others by owned by Helmuth Cords, whom she met when they were both teenagers. Helmuth’s 8mm images show his experiences with Jutta and as a soldier in Hitler’s army.
Jutta recalls as well her husband’s work in the resistance, which the documentary renders through reenactments and a 1955 German film, Der 20 Juli. The essential plot of this drama, a 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, will be familiar to viewers of Valkyrie, Bryan Singer’s 2008 film starring Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Along with Werner Karl von Haeften, Helmuth, and others, von Stauffenberg schemed to detonate a briefcase bomb in Hitler’s Wolfsschanze bunker on 20 July. A junior officer at the time, Helmuth was assigned to insure the security of Berlin’s Bendlerstrasse following the assassination; when the plan failed, he and thousands of others were arrested and tried by the People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof), presided over by Roland Freisler, whom Jutta calls “the absolute devil.”
Jutta’s voice brings a particular vitality to this well-known history. Whether she’s describing her reactions to spotting Helmuth across a dance floor (“He was very good-looking, which made me suspicious of him”) or on a ski slope (“He was not a good skier,” she says, as you see him falling splat in the snow), her memories are crisp her sense of humor intact, and her affections as well as her frustrations apparent. She indicates her disdain and horror at the Nazis’ activities, as well as her concern as a young woman that her family’s resistance efforts might be found out. When they’re asked to hide a German officer, Ludwig Gehre, in their attic, she worried that his behavior would give them away: “He was a nervous wreck and he was worn down,” she remembers, “He was smoking cigarettes in our garden under the window of our neighbors, who were ardent Nazis.”
While she’s in Berlin, Helmuth writes her from the Russian Front (“You won’t believe it, I am still alive: the last two months were absolute shit”) and then from a hospital. When he learns the Germans are running death camps for Jews (as opposed to concentration camps for political dissidents), Helmuth takes action, joining with his friend Werner and also von Stauffenberg. The film includes Helmuth’s “actual voice” in a recording, as he poses the plotters’ dilemma: “One of the hardest decisions that [Werner] had to make was, can one kill on purpose?”
Though he saw his previous work as a soldier as a legal obligation (so that he could go on to study chemistry at university), now the young officer is rethinking what it means to kill someone. From Jutta’s perspective, Helmluth was changed when he came home wounded, he was different. “Now I saw a side of him that I’d never seen before. His blind optimism turned more serious. The war had changed him.” At the same time, Jutta was herself able to commit to acts she could not have imagined when she was a girl, including walking into a Gestapo office in order to demand information on the whereabouts of her parents. “He was simply a nasty piece of work,” she says of her interrogator, who goes on to jail her, in solitary confinement, for months.
Surviving Hitler is most obviously “a love story” in its focus on Helmuth and Jutta’s relationship, their correspondence over years and their efforts to be together. But it is another sort of story in its examination of the young couple’s changing expectations, of themselves and also of the world around them. In this story, too, they are extraordinarily committed.