Ridiculous Trauma: Comic Representations of the Nazi Past in Contemporary German Visual Culture
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Ridiculous Trauma
Comic Representations of the Nazi Past in Contemporary German Visual Culture

Studies of representations of Nazism in contemporary popular media often focus on images and narratives that claim to portray the past as it really was. In analyzing such representations, scholars often combine the analysis of memory politics in current Germany with reflections on the limits of realism when it refers to the experience of trauma and loss (Bartov; Kansteiner; Lang). The growing interest in the endeavor to envision the Nazi past was recently demonstrated in the heated debate that followed the screening of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film Der Untergang (Downfall).1 Based on Joachim Fest’s study of the same name and on the diaries of Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, the film introduces the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as the defeated Führer in the last days before the ultimate fall of Berlin. In dramatizing the social interactions and political intrigues that (presumably) took place in the Führer’s bunker, the film presents the final moments of the Third Reich as instances of disillusionment that enabled those who survived it to make a fresh start in reconstructing postwar Germany. Reflecting on the filmmakers’ advertised pretension to provide a “realist” image of Hitler’s last days (Blasberg and Hunke), and on the enthusiastic reception of the film, the prominent historians David Cesarani and Peter Longerich have linked Der Untergang to a prevalent longing for a form of historical escapism that strives to forget, or deny, Germany’s responsibility for its past. In an article published in the Guardian, Longerich and Cesarani asserted that the film’s depiction of Nazism, including Bruno Ganz’s impressive impersonation of Hitler (as a symbolic embodiment of Nazism and its fate), resonates with the German spectators’ propensity “to see themselves as victims of [End Page 88] Nazism and war,” which expresses a widespread “self-pitying attitude” (Cesarani and Longerich).2

Apparently, the filmmakers’ declared ambition—to visualize the hitherto concealed reality in the Führer’s bunker—instigated a passionate discussion not only because of the display of various contentious details, but also because the film’s “realism” exhibited (and radicalized) a perplexing combination of melodramatic imagery and kitsch (as commented on by several reviewers, for instance Kohler). Echoing Peter Brooks’s characterization of the melodrama, Hirschbiegel sought to charge his film with “intenser significance” through the use of excess and deviation from the “immediate context of the narrative,” in order to reveal “the truer, hidden reality” of Hitler’s regime and its end (Brooks).3 Correspondingly, Brooks’s characterization of the melodrama as the “moral occult” (i.e., as affirmation of moral standards) suggests that the melodramatic portrayal of Hitler and his disciples bears profound moral and political implications, far beyond the problem of the “appropriate” display of a person or an event (Brooks, 53). Kitsch, the symbolic presentation of a “prepackaged sentiment,” as well as of “the message that this sentiment is one that is universally shared,” complements Der Untergang’s melodramatic imagery. As Marita Sturken has noted, such a mode of representation “reduces political complexity” in the process of nation building (Sturken, 22–26; see also Kulka, 38–39). The combination of melodrama and kitsch in the “realist” representation of Nazism thus results in a simplistic construction of meanings and values that dominates the formation of German national identity in the postunification era. Longerich and Cesarani’s irritation seems to be directed at the menacing results of such influences (compare with Margalit 2002, 61–63; Friedlander, 13–16).

Scholars’ interest in, and criticism of, such realistic portrayals, however, generally downplay the popularity of various different methods of representation. While many audio-visual references to the Nazi past have merged melodramatic traits and kitsch to constitute historical realism, German popular culture also exhibits an effort to undermine, and ridicule, such realism. In what follows I shift the focus from the somber realism imposed by Hirschbiegel’s portrayal of the Führer (Figure 1) to the impotent, foolish Adolf of the kind presented in Walter Moers’s comics about Hitler’s postwar resurrection (Figure 2). My [End Page 89]

Figure 1. The pretension to display “what really happened” turns Nazi reality into kitsch. Poster advertising Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Der Untergang (Downfall).
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