How Much Witness Can We Bear?
It’s hard to know whether the current thinking about victimhood—that somehow or other, we’re all implicated—has been productive for Holocaust movies. On the one hand, the genre (if it can be called one) has renewed its probative force with the basic idea that perpetrators are people too. On the other hand, the bewildered humanism that often results has fostered a moping, defeatist stance. Blaming evildoers for their deeds is useless; blaming ourselves for not stopping them might be more productive. Is it?
Movies have taken the question seriously at least since the early ‘90s, when the Holocaust Hero Story mutated into the Nice Nazi Character Study. In 1990, we had Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak, about the real doctor who bravely ran a protective orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto. By 1993, we also had Schindler’s List.
Now we have André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, and Konstantinos Costa-Gavras’ Amen. One is a stripped-down documentary and the other, based loosely on Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial 1963 play, “The Deputy,” is a fictionalized, occasionally heavy-handed parable about inertia as an accessory to evil. Each asks a provocative question. In Blind Spot, it’s “What happens when your peculiar, father-figure boss turns out to be the worst criminal of the modern age?” And in Amen, “What happens when a diligent exterminator discovers that he is exterminating people?”
Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary has an advantage in the diminishing number of people available with first-hand knowledge and experience with the father of Nazism. The secretary to whom Hitler dictated his last will and testament, Traudl Junge, survived the last days in the Führer’s bunker, and with only a few brief exceptions, stayed mum on her experience for the rest of the century. In 2000, she agreed to a 10-hour interview with Andre Heller, who, with his team, condensed the material into a very talkative 90 minutes.
“The older I get, the more I have this feeling of burden,” she says, convincingly. Junge doesn’t describe her young self, whom she can not forgive, as “a fervent Nazi,” but explains, ruefully, “I just said yes, without thinking at all.” It’s familiar testimony, evoking at least one widely read source on such matters, Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. But Heller wouldn’t have a movie if Junge were completely “ordinary.” After all, she was in very close contact with the Führer and typed all his memoranda.
She says she hadn’t really wanted the job—it was arranged for her by a relative—but after performing well on a typing test, and being disarmed by Hitler’s paternalism in person, she became curious. As the film shows, the curiosity clearly evolved into a kind of trust. Years later, with his cause lost and his coterie trapped underneath encroaching Allied wrath, Junge’s father figure killed himself, and she felt angry and abandoned.
Blind Spot uses no gimmicks—no cutaways to archive footage, no music, just Traudl Junge’s face, her haunted blue eyes often fixed in the middle distance as if unable to look directly into the camera. And through this tight focus, we see that the film’s subject, really, is the difficulty of reflection. Heller and Schmiderer offer occasional revealing shots of Junge watching her own interview. She seems amazed by the sight and sound of herself finally unfastening this testimony.
Which is not to say that she allows herself, or us, any real catharsis. Junge suggests that solace could only come in some small measure from knowing that in her terrible ignorance she was not alone. And she wasn’t. The Protestant chemist and S.S. lieutenant Kurt Gerstein, as played by Ulrich Tukur in Amen, was also a real person, and he wasn’t a fervent Nazi either. This was especially so once he learned that the agent he’d created to disinfect German soldiers’ drinking water had been turned into a weapon of mass murder. Director Costa-Gavras has specialized in films about basically decent people chewed up by anti-human political machines, so the accidental impresario of Zyklon B seems like a natural choice for a protagonist.
In one of Amen‘s pivotal scenes, Gerstein’s fellow officers bring him to watch their handiwork for the first time. They step out of their comfortable black car and peek into the gas chamber from the eerie silence outside. Our only glimpse of the horror is through the look on Gerstein’s face—like Junge, his haunted blue eyes looking into a distance. This look is the point: Amen, like Blind Spot, considers atrocity by examining the real burden of abiding with it long after the fact.
Unlike Junge, Gerstein didn’t take long to recognize his complicity, or to tell people about it. His risky efforts to sneak information to the Allies were met, however, with maddening diplomatic indifference. He gets help from a Jesuit priest named Riccardo Fontana (an amalgam of several real people, and played by Mathieu Kassovitz), who has direct access to the Pope. But that doesn’t help—which we should know from the record of events. If not, check out Goldhagen’s new book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. In Amen, Costa-Gavras comes down hard on Pius XII and the Catholic Church for their deadly inaction.
When it becomes clear that he can not stop the genocide, Gerstein tries to sabotage it. He chemically weakens the gas’ effectiveness, but his superiors use it anyway, irked at the decreased efficiency, and the victims only die more slowly. All Fontana can do, it seems, is take up with the doomed Jews and martyr himself. He shocks his superiors by attaching a yellow star to his clothing and allowing himself to be shuttled off to the death camp. Gerstein gets a chance to ask him why, and Fontana says it’s to learn how God could observe such atrocity and do nothing.
How could anyone? These are films about being spectator to the unbearable. They spend their considerable energies on contemplation of this conundrum; instead of showing violence directly they imply it and consider how one (or these two figures) could ever bear witness. Costa-Gavras’ keenest choice in this regard is a potent motif of empty boxcars passing through the bleak background. Rather than make us watch, these films show us what it’s like to have watched.
But in doing so, perhaps inevitably, they create a kind of distance too. Amen risks losing us when its contemplative tone dips into didacticism (someone actually intones: “Some betrayals are the last resort of the just”) or black comedy (at lunch at the Vatican, eminences and diplomats slurp lobster and lackadaisically pass Fontana’s map of the murder factory around the table). Gerstein and Fontana want to do the right thing, but the conspiracy against letting them do it, however chillingly accurate, becomes repetitive.
Blind Spot‘s distance comes from Junge’s literal detachment—casually discussing her own insulation from events of half a century ago. She gets emotional a few times, and cries once, but her yarn spinning often becomes more intellectually fascinating than emotionally gripping. She says her employer “didn’t think in human dimensions,” as he seemed to prefer grand abstractions, yet her presentation of him, a patchwork of random recollections viewed as if through backwards binoculars, makes him sometimes seem like an abstract curiosity himself.
By now it’s broadly understood that where evil is concerned, indifference is an accelerant. It’s also understood that genocide continues, that complacency has afflicted world populations like a plague. What emerges, then, from seeing these two films in relative tandem is the idea that Gerstein and Junge, both of good but tardy conscience, got the boss they deserved.