Monday, March 6, 2017

On A German Life

Last night, I saw A German Life (Christian Kones and Olaf S. Muller, 2016), which is here as part of a documentary film festival. It's a long interview with Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels's personal secretary. If you can, I would suggest you see it in a movie theater. Most of the film presents Pomsel in close-ups at different angles, so you can study every crevice of her 103-year-old face as if it were a giant stage, every flicker of her eye, every turn of emotion as she recalls the Jewish employer whom she served in the 1930s. You watch her face as she struggles with her own responsibility while still denying she knew anything that was happening, analyzes the public persona and private personality of her employer, complains about her accusers, tries to figure out where and if she can acknowledge her own guilt. We never hear her interrogators, but we do see her immediate reactions to their questions. The interrogation is interspersed with various film clips, Nazi propaganda, homemade videos from Jews, and US propaganda. Pomsel's is a giant face, old, dessicatted, and miserable. It's grotesque until she starts talking. I almost found myself sympathizing with her, fearing myself becoming an old, ugly man with a lifetime of guilt, until Kones and Muller, in a moment of extreme cruelty, confronted me with the worst archival footage from the Holocaust I have ever seen.

Pomsel tells the current generation, the one that believes they would have fought with all their power to save the Jews in the 1940s that they don't know what they're talking about, and in most cases she's right. If you live long enough, you will become an old person with an ugly mien, clutching your clothes lecturing the children about all the things they don't know. Yes, we knew all about the torture of chickens and cows, but we ate them anyway. We knew about solitary confinement and Joe Arpaio's deportation camp in Arizona, but we patiently waited for our politicians to do the right thing, as we had other priorities. We knew about the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo, in fact many of us wondered if torture might be beneficial. And we knew that we needed to conserve water, but we couldn't imagine it running out. You would have been no different.

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