- The Nazi Past in Contemporary German Film: Viewing Experiences of Intimacy and Immersion by Axel Bangert
Axel Bangert's concise monograph describes German films released since 1990 that treat the Third Reich. It begins with one question these films posit: "What did it mean to experience the Third Reich?" (1). It ends with a pair: "What would I have become? Who are we now?" (169). In the space between these queries, a reunified Germany's redefinitions of itself and its engagement with the past through the transporting power of moving pictures are deftly explored.
Bangert's prose is measured and textured. Three chapters frame films that focus on domestic interiors, seductive monstrosities, and immersive spectacles – the first and last of this trio are prefigured in the book's subtitle, Intimacy and Immersion. The German film Dresden (2006) is a contemporary example of spectacle, replete with warfare, destruction, and explosions. 2 or 3 Things I Know about Him (2005) displays domestic intimacy--Nazism's effect on a single family. And Conversation with the Beast (1996) boasts a seductive monstrosity, a reconstituted 103-year-old Hitler. A fourth and final chapter explicates the normalisierung (normalization) of Germany's Nazi past "and its impact on collective belonging and national identity" (137) by means of the contemporary version of Heimatfilmen (homeland films) such as Leo & Claire (2001).
Throughout, Bangert includes film financing, cinematic technique, critical receptions, popular reactions, and narrative shading to illuminate his subject. He succeeds. It is a confident and thoughtful exposition, well researched and supported with chapter endnotes, a filmography, a bibliography, and a dense index. His monograph will be of great utility to scholars.
One theme threaded through contemporary German cinema, which Bangert [End Page 61] repeatedly emphasizes, is self-reflection upon the Nazi past. Documentary films might seem particularly oriented towards replying to the author's initial question: what was it like in 1933-1945 Germany? Such films are presumed to be factual, authentic, accurate, and retrospective. We expect a lens directly into the past reconstructed and perhaps even preserved by the silver nitrate of original footage. Yet even here, a film is as much about the present and who we are now as about what happened then. Documentaries, Bangert's subtext confirms, unearth as much or more about reunified Germany than the Nazi past they detail.
In My Private War (1990), 8mm amateur recordings by veterans of Operation Barbarossa form a montage alongside interviews with German WWII veterans. Because the film presented an uncensored "private reality of war, the self-perception of former soldiers" (24), it provoked outrage from German audiences. Atrocities had been filmed so matter-of-factly. Soldiers recalled less shame than the brotherly comradeship of the front and "war as an opportunity for travel" (Ibid.). One soldier filmed himself bathing in the Black Sea: war as tourism. Yet even here, the filmmaker's values intervene, at least at the film's end, as Bangert describes:
The documentary concludes with another veteran's affirmation that, until the present day, he has retained "ein kristallklares Gewissen" (a crystal-clear conscience) about his activity during the war. This affirmation is followed by an abrupt cut to a blank screen, as if to point at how the veterans banned the consequences of their war experiences from both consciousness and conscience.(25)
Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002) introduces Traudl Junge's personal account of her time with Hitler. She originally wrote the account shortly after Hitler's suicide, Decades later, Junge reread her words and her conversations examining her recollections were filmed in her Munich apartment. The filmmakers renounced typical documentary techniques like cutting to archival footage, music, or voiceovers. The film is simply Junge in her apartment:
The only shift in camera position occurring throughout the documentary reveals a television screen in the middle ground of the frame that displays a recording of Junge, while in the left foreground the viewer recognizes Junge watching herself. In the following reverse shot, Junge is portrayed in the act...