Reflections on Movie Nazis

Mike Hertenstein, 'Movie Nazis & After the Truth', Filmwell, 28 April 2009

Mike Hertenstein writes a very interesting piece about 'Movie Nazis' over at Filmwell. Primarily it's a piece reflecting on After the Truth, a film written by Americans but finally made by German filmmakers in the late 1990s. But in a long introduction, Hertenstein explores our love-hate relationship with Nazis in films. He examines the way they are often presented as evil incarnate, yet we find often find them compelling. We view them as monsters, and yet, as philosopher Hannah Arendt famously observed at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the reality is that evil often seems banal. I was very struck by the quotation with which Hertenstein begins:

Having failed to recognize one of Hitler’s most specifically diabolical features – his way of localizing all the evil beyond his own borders, so as to make himself appear innocent – we have fallen into the same error as himself: we have made of Hitler an image of the Demon wholly external to our own reality. And while we were watching it with fascination, the Demon approached us again from behind to torment us beneath disguises which could not arouse our suspicions.– Denis de Rougemont, The Devil’s Share

This is an enormously important point. While we can point elsewhere - to anywhere but ourselves – as the place where evil is to be found, we excuse ourselves of moral responsibility. The reality is that evil lives within our hearts too, and we are not so far removed from the 'monsters' as we might imagine. We too nurture hatreds, and the notion that our darkest thoughts might at some point express themselves in our actions is horrifying. Yet we must also make moral judgments of those who play a part in such terrible events as the Holocaust. This, it seems, is the dilemma, or the tension, at the heart of After the Truth, which I now am desperate to see.

I'm particularly intrigued to read Mike Hertenstein's article now, since over the last few weeks I have found myself wondering why there seem to be so many films about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in recent months and years. Good has just been in UK cinemas, and in the last six months or so we've also had The Reader, Valkyrie and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. What is especially interesting about these examples is that they don't simply give us the embodiment-of-pure-evil Nazis that Hertenstein is talking about in the first part of his essay. With varying degrees of success, they face us with the moral dilemmas of being a German citizen in the years before and during the Second World War. Good uses the moral carelessness and compromise of one man as a synecdoche of the entire nation. While some knew perfectly well what they were doing, many simply went with the flow after decades, centuries even, of anti-semitism and years of vigorous pan-Germanic nationalism. This is brought out in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which its author John Boyne describes as a fable. The mother of Bruno, the child at the centre of the story, knows what she thinks about Jews, but has no idea - or chooses to shut from her mind - what her husband's work involves. And he is presented as a good father early on, with a steady sharpening of the focus on the evil with which he is associated. Such films make us ask how we would have behaved if we had been there, what it would have taken for us to become monsters too. They make us look at the darkness of our hearts and the corruption of our wills, and remind us that we need rescuing.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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