[1 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If there is one thing the German people can never live down, it’s the Holocaust. Argue all you want to over the decision to support the Third Reich or the entry into World War II, but the populace did embrace Hitler and his ‘Fatherland Forever’ ideals, many of which used ethnic cleansing as a means of revitalizing the spirit and dignity of a war ravaged nation. In our modern purview, such problematic politics seem as farfetched as those making a living out of denying “The Final Solution”. Sadly, they existed, and for a while, flourished and have continued to rebound since in places like the Balkans and Africa.
Yet two new films—the recent theatrical release The Debt and the new to DVD documentary Dear Uncle Adolf: The Germans and their Fuhrer argue a more complicated scenario. For many, payback for the lost six million Jews—as well as the many Poles, Russians, Gypsies, gays, and all the others the Nazis didn’t like—will never be enough. It is a fight to never forget and never fail. But within the crazed country, at the time contemporaneous with the first concentration camps, were people who questioned the ghettos and detention of their fellow citizens and friends. Unfortunately, in both cases, the need for a bigger picture proposition outweighed the work and will of a select few.
The Debt sees this dilemma from the perspective of the persecuted. When a trio of Mossad agents, charged with bringing in a notorious war criminal, mess up the mission, they realize what needs to be done. As they argue over the reality of their carelessness, group leader Stefan (Marton Csokas) makes it very clear that they cannot go back to Israel empty-handed. For the fledgling nation, mired in its own serious issues of sovereignty, defeat is not an option. They must have their man, or a myth. While compatriots Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and David (Sam Worthington) fell under the false compassionate sway of otherwise evil captive, failure is worse than collaborating. It argues for a lack of strength, a shoulder shrug sense of fear that has hounded the Jews since the rise of the Reich.
Later, when the adult members of this now celebrated cabal sense their plan falling apart, bravery and justice are once again thrust to the fore. All throughout The Debt (the title even suggests the stakes at hand), the characters are concerned about protection—or better yet, the act of protecting. Naturally, they want to protect their personal and professional legend, and they want to protect their respective families. But they also are in charge of protecting the entire post-Holocaust history of their people. If the truth gets out, it becomes a black mark measured against all other successes and triumphs. Granted, this particular tale is 100% fictional, but the theme is the same as with all other war criminal investigations. If the world lets just one of these monsters live out their life in peace, evil wins.
Oddly enough, it’s a sentiment expressed over and over again in actual letters sent to Hitler during his reign as Chancellor. In Dear Uncle Adolf, a series of selected messages are read aloud over archival footage of the Reich’s rise, as well as home movies of everyday Germans enjoying life. Still, for every mushy love note sent by a starry eyed citizen (the sentiments are shocking in their naive affection), someone stands up for what is happening to the people: not individuals per se, but the way in which the rest of the planet views their country. One particular plea sees a so-called sensible Berliner argue that, by specifically picking out the Jews, Germany looks not only prejudiced, but petty. They may be an issue, the writer begrudgingly suggests, but to round them up and ship them off doesn’t appear to be the proper answer to the problem. In fact, it undermines the country’s sense of self.
Others are not so subtle. More than a couple of these correspondences suggest that Hitler is leading the country directly into a confrontation it cannot answer for. “How do we explain it?”, one person says. Indeed, they wonder how the rest of the world will react to such a radical, unconscionable approach? Others remove race from the situation and suggest that renewal should not come with repression. Aside from the obvious targets, the Reich also pinpointed thinkers and scholars, scientists and activists. Indeed, one of the most amazing sequences in Dear Uncle Adolf doesn’t deal with the Holocaust, but small children pleading with their leader to let their daddies come home from prison.
In a weird, almost watershed way, these two films argue the inflexibility of their various viewpoints. Granted, one is so reprehensible as to remain a horror story some 70 years removed… and it should be. The Final Solution remains an affront to every human being, past and present. But the notion that defeat is not acceptable for our fictional spies argues for an equally illogical, if decidedly less reprehensible, position. Whether or not Stefan, Rachel, and David bring Dr. Vogel back alive is not necessarily the end of Israel as we now know it. It also doesn’t suggest that the Jewish people are incapable of great acts of heroism and cunning. As the adult Rachel (Helen Mirren) eventually realizes, the lie is just as damaging as the truth. A false sense of pride is just that - false.
That the concerns of a select group of citizens were ignored while the Nazis rallied everyone from the elderly to the youth is not surprising. Dear Uncle Adolf makes it abundantly clear that the Fuhrer got much more fan mail than disagreements. But this love and admiration was also false—false in the sense that few actually knew or completely understood what the new Germany was trying to be. False because the government was presenting one propagandized image while it was secretly doing something else. One such missive wants to understand all the flag waving and rights restrictions, believing (rightfully so) that it’s all a greatness built on the back of misery and hate. As with all the other letters to the beloved despotic uncle, it goes unanswered.
Nor did they need to be. The Third Reich ended up speaking for itself—loudly and clearly. The crimes it committed against the human race demand redress, something that The Debt argues honestly and openly. Yet there are also subtexts on both sides that suggest not everything was so cut and dry. Among the Germans, there were those who believed the actions of their leader were wrong. Sadly, they were a small voice among the din. In the case of our fictional spy games, a lie in service of supposed justice is no equity at all. Instead, it destroys the purpose behind such a pledge in the first place. As important as it is to “Never Forget”, it is equally imperative to never forget why. It’s a charge each of these films finds and fosters.