Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012)

Hannah Arendt

I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Hannah Arendt. It can’t get much better than Barbara Sukowa starring in a movie by Margarethe von Trotta. Just recently I have watched another movie they’ve made together – Vision, which was amazing – and I was looking forward to watch Hannah Arendt. The movie is, as I expected, very good, but the title is badly chosen. It would have been much better to call it Arendt on Eichmann or some such thing. With her name as the sole title we’re led to believe it’s about her life while it’s only about her controversial book on Adolf Eichmann and the extreme hostility she experienced after writing it.

Philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt emigrated to France in 1933 and, after having spent some time at Camp Gurs, emigrated to the US in 1941 where she stayed until her death in 1975. She lived in New York.

The movie takes place in 1961. Eichmann had been captured in Argentina by the Israeli Intelligence Agency and brought to Israel to be tried. The New York Times sent Hannah Arendt to Jerusalem to report on the trial. The movie uses a lot of original footage of the trial; we see and hear Eichmann answer questions. And we witness Arendt’s fascination and shock. When she travels to Israel, like so many, she’s prepared to see a “monster”, an extraordinarily evil man, but what she witnesses is, what she later coins “the banality of evil”. What the film shows nicely is how Arendt came to understand that Eichmann was not extraordinary at all. On the very contrary. He was just a man who followed orders without ever thinking or questioning anything. People didn’t react kindly to her interpretation. Surely a mass murderer like Eichmann couldn’t be such a banal creature. But Arendt went one step further saying that without the support of the Jewish leaders the mass extermination would not have been as successful as it was.

Of course I knew her position of Eichmann’s banality but I didn’t know she had blamed the Jewish leaders. The uproar and outrage were incredible and for a long time her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was not translated into Hebrew.

The movie also touches briefly on her relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had an affair when she was his student. Heidegger is a controversial figure because he was affiliated with Nazism prior to 1934.

According to the film, Arendt was not only blamed for her positions but for being very cold. The victims felt that in saying Eichmann wasn’t a monster, they were blamed as well. I agree that some of the interpretation of her findings must have sounded harsh and brutal to the victims, but I think the movie also manages to show that wasn’t what it was about. In saying Eichmann was banal, Arendt warned us. She meant to show that it didn’t take extraordinary people for a totalitarian systems to work; ordinary people who follow orders and refuse to think are all it needs.

The original footage showing Eichmann is chilling, but without Sukowa’s stellar performance this would only have been half as good.

Not a lot of people stood by her side once her articles were published. But she always had Mary McCarthy (wonderfully played by Janet McTeer) and her husband Heinrich Blücher and some of her friends.

Hannah Arendt is one of the best biopics I’ve seen in recent years. I highly recommend it.

For those who don’t like subtitles: a large part of the movie is spoken in English.

Mephisto (1981)

I wonder what took me so long to watch Mephisto for the first time. István Szabó‘s movie is an absolutely riveting and chilling tale of one man’s betrayal of everything he once believed in and all the many self-deceiving lies he tells himself.  I have always been fond of Klaus Maria Brandauer but this must be one of his very best roles. He is simply astounding.

Mephisto is loosely based on Klaus Mann’s eponymous novel. The story is quickly summarized. Henrik Hoefgen is a famous actor in Hamburg in the early 30s. Hamburg is provincial compared to Berlin and Hoefgen has dreams and hopes and sees himself already as Germany’s most famous actor in the future. While he is most certainly very talented he is equally narcissistic. On the other hand he is full of idealism and flirts with communism. When he plays Mephisto in Goethe’s Faust, he is discovered and receives an invitation to Berlin. Finally his dreams come true. He will be an actor at Germany’s leading theater. In Berlin, as well, it is the role of Mephisto which brings him a lot of admirers, some of which are prominent Nazis. It doesn’t take long and the Nazis try to instrumentalize him. In love with himself and his success he doesn’t see this at first. Soon he becomes the governments pet actor, speaks in its name at openings and supports the government.

While he may be oblivious of the consequences at first, when he starts to realize he has sold out, he begins to lie to himself and pretends it isn’t the artist’s duty to be political. He even goes so far as to pretend that an artist lives outside of everything.

Mephisto is a riveting character portrait and an in-depth analysis of what can become of someone whose conformity and lust for success make him forget that he has a responsibility. The movie looks especially into the responsibility of the artists. While many chose to leave the country as soon as possible, those who stayed often pretended it was their duty not to abandon the country in its hour of need and that those who left were cowards. It’s obvious that the famous actor Gustaf Gründgens, who also worked with Klaus Mann, has served as a model for Hoefgen.

Mephisto is certainly one of the best movies I have seen this year; it’s intelligent and entertaining and the acting is amazing.  So far this is my favourite of István Szabó’s movies. I haven’t seen Colonel Redl yet, – equally starring Klaus Maria Brandauer – but I’m very keen now.

Nordwand – North Face (2008)

Maybe the German/Austrian/Swiss co-production Nordwand – North Face isn’t strictly speaking a war movie but it contains one of my favourite subjects, Nazi ideology and propaganda and therefore still qualifies. Plus it’s a stunning movie which had me glued to the screen until the end.

Before I start the summary, let me share a little anecdote. I remember when I was a kid we stayed at the holiday house of my parent’s friends in the Alps. The house was facing the Eiger. I was just 8 years old and scared. I found the mountain to look as if it was looming. I had the feeling it was moving towards me and just about to swallow me. I had no idea at the time that Eiger means ogre. Funny enough, my father, a typical big city person, had a similar reaction. He wasn’t scared but admitted to feeling uncomfortable. My mother who had been living in Switzerland much longer, didn’t mind that much but she didn’t enjoy it either.

When I saw North Face I was catapulted back to this holiday. I’ve hardly ever seen a movie capture how scary those mountains are. The Eiger’s North Face (Nordwand) was called “Mordwand” (murder wall) for a reason.

The movie is set in 1936. Until then nobody had managed to climb the north face of the Swiss massif the Eiger. Athletism was an important pillar of Nazi ideology and propaganda. Athletes incorporated the Nazi ideal to perfection so naturally there was a lot of interest in Germans being the first to manage what nobody else had managed before. At the same time as Germany was about to annex Austria and the Olympics were imminent, a win on the Eiger would be good for the reputation of the Nazis.

Luise Fellner is a young woman trying to become a journalist. She grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who are some of the best climbers at the time. When her boss, an eager journalist, finds out about the connection he sends her to her home village to try to persuade them to climb the North Face and give her the chance to prove herself as a photojournalist. Despite Andi’s efforts to convince his friend, Toni, the more thoughtful of the two, is reluctant. He thinks climbing the Eiger is by far too dangerous. Only when Andi finally decides to do it on his own, he follows him.

Luise and her boss travel to Switzerland and stay at the hotel in front of the Eiger. Meanwhile it has become a real competition. There are climbing teams from Italy, France and Austria. In the end only two teams, the German and the Austrian team, will start the climb.

Nordwand is an amazing movie. The cinematography is stunning. This is as close to climbing as you can get without actually doing it. It’s also a love story and the story of an emancipation as Luise faces a lot of prejudice and sexism in her profession. Furthermore it is a story of a unique friendship and one of the most tragic true stories I’ve ever seen.

The movie also shows nicely how the media contributed to the success of nazism, how people already then were keen on sensationalism, how they were hungry for drama and tragedy without thinking of the human pain and loss this meant. There are some interesting secondary characters who illustrate this well.

Another aspect which certainly contributes to the movie’s success are the actors. They  are outstanding, Ulrich Tukur plays the overeager older journalist, Johanna Wolkalek stars as the young photojournalist and the two mountaineers are played by Benno Fürmann as Toni Kurz and as Florian Lukas as Andi Hinterstoisser.

North Face is one of the best mountaineering movies, certainly a great war themed movie but most of all an incredible and really tragic true story.

Eichmann (2007)

I was looking forward to watch the British Hungarian co-production Eichmann starring one of my favourite German actors Thomas Kretschmann. If I tell you it was entertaining this should ring a bell right away. A movie based on Adolf Eichmann’s interrogation should not be entertaining. No, it really shouldn’t. If it is, something went wrong. And that’s what happened. I should have known this wouldn’t be a good movie because most reviews are far from appreciative but I was curious and wanted to find out for myself.

The core question, which isn’t really explored as well as I would have wished, is whether someone who follows an order and gives orders, like Eichmann did, is as guilty as those who executed the orders or those who decided they should be given. It’s the same question that lies at the heart of plays like Macbeth. Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth to kill, does that make her less guilty than her husband who did the killing?

Eichmann was one of the highest Nazi functionaries. He had the position of Transportation Administrator of the so-called Final Solution. In this function he was in charge of all the trains that  brought Jews to the death camps in occupied Poland. It is said that he is responsible for the execution of 6.000.000 people. After the war he could escape to Argentina. He was one of a few Nazi criminals not to be sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials because he was in hiding. The State of Israel was established in 1948. Its official intelligence agency, Mossad, was formed one year later. One of Mossad’s principal assigned tasks was to hunt down accused Nazi war criminals. Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960 and brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1961. He was executed in 1962.

The movie however isn’t very explicit on all of this but focusses purely on the interrogation. Avner Less, a young Israeli police officer whose father had been on one of the trains sent to Auschwitz by Adolf Eichmann, was the one who interrogated Eichmann. The movie is told from Avner’s point of view. It shows the problems this interrogation brings to his family and to himself, the reaction of the public, how the media hunt him.

The interrogation as such had the aim to make Eichmann confess. Most of the interrogation we see consists of Avner asking and Eichmann denying. Whenever Eichmann lies, the movie shows what really happened in a flashback and that’s where the movie gets entertaining but absurd as we see Eichmann depicted like a gigolo with various lovers. Really weird.

On the other hand, while showing a shallow and silly Eichmann in the flashbacks, the way the people in Israel talk about him in the movie makes it sound as if they thought he was the sole responsible for the murders of so many people. Both are gross exaggerations and make this a really dubious movie.

I don’t understand why this incredible story could not have been done any better. It certainly would have deserved to be told well.

I have bought Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil a while back. I would have done better reading that instead.

One word about the actor. Many reviewers criticized Kretschmann for his wooden acting. I saw documentaries of the trial and think the man Eichmann was very wooden. In any case, it’s not the actor’s fault this isn’t a good movie. I’d say he was actually quite good.

Still, a movie like Eichmann has some value as it may generate an interest in people to find out more about this sinister character and it may trigger conversations about guilt and responsibility. But it’s not a good movie.

The Diary of Anne Frank (2009) The BBC mini-series

The Diary of Anne Frank is a BBC mini-series in 5 parts, each of which is half an hour long. There are far over 20 movies or TV series that depict the life of this famous thirteen year old girl. Anne Frank spent two years in hiding, in an annex and the attic of an old house in Amsterdam during the last years of the second world war. Because they were Jewish, her father decided to hide in order to avoid being deported to a concentration camp. They hid there together with family friends, all in all 8 people and a cat, in very close quarters. Anne, a precocious and highly intelligent teenager, kept a diary of this time, the famous Diary of Anne Frank, on which this and any other movie is based.

The incredible tragedy of Anne Frank’s story is the well-known fact, that after hiding for two years successfully, they were still found and deported to various camps where they all died, in some cases just a few months before the end of the war.

The father was the only survivor. And what “survived” as well, was Anne’s diary that she had to leave behind when they were discovered. The lovely Miep, who hid them, and brought them food every day, kept it.

There are different ways to tell Anne’s story I remember one movie also showing her in the concentration camp. That was a very good but very bleak movie. This mini-series is completely different.

I found especially the first parts to be very educational. This could and should be shown in schools and can also be watched with younger children. I found out later that the BBC aimed at this public. In so far it is very well done. The girl Anne and her daily life, her struggles, conflict with the grown-us – in particular the mother – first love and many other things are shown nicely. We also see how stressful it must have been to hide like that and be around the same people day in and day out. They had no privacy, no independence, no freedom.

This cozy feel is a bit of a problem for grown-ups, I would say, it’s a bit too cute. On the other hand, the end is extremely powerful, much more powerful even than the end of the one in the concentration camp. But you really have to watch the whole series to experience this ending. We see nothing graphic, nothing brutal, just the people being led out and the name of the concentration camp and the date of their death. Very moving. All the quarrels, and petty grievances they went through, all the weaknesses we saw, they all of a sudden get another dimension. In retrospect even the most annoying of the characters becomes endearing. It seems so ironic that they were caught so late, after so many years of deprivations, just when they started to rejoice after having listened to the BBC and heard about D-Day…

Der Stellvertreter aka Amen (2002) The Disillusioning Reaction of the Catholic Church to the Holocaust

In the beginning of Costa Gavras´ Der Stellvertreter aka Amen we see how a group of children with special needs is transported to an extermination camp and gassed. When this is being found out people are shocked and taken aback and, together with the Catholic Church, they fight these practices that are ultimately stopped.

This noble reaction of the Church is not repeated however when they are asked for assistance in stopping the extermination of Jews. Nor do the alerted Allies help. Der Stellvertreter explores the shameful failure of the Catholic church and the rest of the world.

The SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), head of the Institute of Hygiene, is a chemist and the developer of the lethal gas Zyklone-B. He thinks that this deadly gas is used to free the concentration camps from vermin and must find out that it is actually used for exterminating Jews. He witnesses this with his own eyes and his outrage and revulsion are so intense that he decides to alarm the Catholic Church. Only one young priest, whose family is of great influence in the Vatican, Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), feels the urge to support Gerstein, travels to the Vatican and informs the Pope. To no avail. The Church won’t act.

The Church fears many things. They are afraid that communism might spread and are grateful to the Nazis who stopped it. They are afraid that they might not be spared by the Nazis if they oppose too openly. And, as the movie seems to say, they ultimately don’t care too much about the Jews.

Gerstein and Fontana will go on fighting and trying to inform people, to make at least the Allies act. The Allies however don’t want to act as they don’t want to negotiate with criminals. Every time Gerstein and Fontana inform someone about the extent of the atrocities the numbers have risen. From an initial hundred thousand they are soon in the millions. These numbers are symbolized in the numerous takes of riding trains we see during the movie.

As an ultimate sacrifice and because he thinks it is his Christian duty the young priest joins a transport of Italian Jews to one of the concentrations camps.

Kurt Gerstein is a historical figure. After the war all the important figures of Nazi Germany were incarcerate. Gerstein, facing trial and before killing himself, writes a report on everything he has seen. Years later he is found not guilty and rehabilitated.

As interesting as the theme of this movie is I did not find it completely compelling. Maybe because it is based on a theater play (Rolf Hochhut’s Der Stellvertreter aka The Deputy)? I don’t know. I think you will have to find out for yourself. 4/5 stars but still valuable.

Hitler – The Rise of Evil (2003) Hitler´s Childhood, Youth and Early Years

The only thing necessary

for evil to flourish

is for good men

to do nothing.  (Edmund Burke)

Hitler – The Rise of Evil follows Hitler´s early years. First his childhood with an abusive father, then the pursuit of his dream to become a great artist which lack of talent prevented. His participation in WWI,  his rise through the ranks of the German Worker´s Party, his imprisonment that gave him time to write Mein Kampf. Even though this movie ends around the year 1934 with Hitler becoming Reich´s President, I think it is fair to include it on a war movie blog as it permits to see what happened prior to WWII and how the Jews were persecuted long before the war

The Scottish actor Robert Carlyle gives a stunning performance starring as Hitler. The madness of Hitler is creepy and palpable. However exactly this has been criticized. When you watch this movie you can´t help thinking all the time: how did he get away with it? He was so obviously deranged, mad and psychologically disturbed that no one should have been tempted to follow him. I think that in showing Hitler exactly like this, this movie contributes to shed another light on him. Sure, we know he was sick but still we tend to see him as a deranged dictator. I would say it is high time to look at him as some sort of head of a sect. He should be paralleled with people like Charles Manson and Jim Jones. The same psychological dynamics that are at work in people who follow cult leaders were also present in many Germans at the time.

The movie also manages to show how many people just didn´t react or looked the other way. There is only one journalist (played by Matthew Modine) who points out how dangerous Hitler is. The Rise of Evil has a close look at Hitler´s relationship with women (his niece and Eva Braun) where his full-blown madness is maybe as evident as in his hatred of the Jews. A great part of the movie focuses on the American/German couple Hanfstaengel. Their importance seems not historically accurate and it might very well be that their role had been extended for the sake of US viewers. I thought it interesting to see how Helene Hanfstaengel (Julianna Margulies) who was against Hitler at the beginning, all of a sudden changed her mind and became one of his most fervent supporters. Many women fell for him, as odd as this may seem. The role played by Ernst Röhm (Peter Stormare) is also explored with great detail as is the person of Hindenburg (Peter O’ Toole)

Nobody should compare this film to Der Untergang aka The Downfall as hardly any movie is as good as that but it is thought-provoking, interesting and, as already said, Carlyle is amazingly good.