There’s an old joke that inside every German there’s a Nazi yearning to get out. While a gross overstatement there is I’m unhappy to report more than a little truth to that old chestnut. But more about that later.
Last month I had the opportunity in Munich to attend a screening of Roman Polanski’s new film The Pianist which will premiere in the United States next week. This film is based on the true story of the Polish Jewish piano virtuoso Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived the entire Nazi occupation of Warsaw hiding in the Ghetto and at times being hidden right under the noses of the Nazis in safe houses maintained by the Polish Resistance.
Simply put Polanski’s film is a masterpiece. It is considerably better than Schindler’s List and is undoubtedly the greatest Holocaust movie of all time. The Pianist has already won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. It deserves to win the Oscar.
What is remarkable about the film is its brutal and unflinching honesty. It avoids the cheap sentimentality that marred the otherwise exemplary Schindler’s List. The film also avoids stereotypes as much as possible. Not all of the Jews behave nobly and one Nazi officer at the end of the film is shown to have at least one spark of humanity left in his otherwise accursed soul. Adrien Brody delivers a stunning performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman an incredibly demanding role as he is in virtually every scene.
The cinematography is brilliant and even when we are not seeing the title character in action the events occurring on film are from the point of view of the protagonist as though we are watching along with him as he peeks out of his hiding places to see Germans murdering Jews just for the sheer sport of itand later on Germans getting a taste of their own medicine when the Warsaw Uprising begins.
In addition to exposing the full range of Germanic horrors that made up the Holocaust – I don’t want to give too much of the movie away but there is one scene in which the Germans summarily execute an entire family of Jews that is so shocking in its brutality that you’ll want go home and break every piece of Dresden china in the cupboard and take a sledgehammer to every yuppie’s Beamer in the parking lot – The Pianist is a testament to the indefatigable spirit of life that refuses to go gentle into the night.
In particular the humanizing influence of art of the will to create is expertly juxtaposed by Polanski to the German will to destroy indeed to the Germanic tendency to embrace all of the negative energy of the universe. In the battle between artistic matter and Germanic anti-matter it is art that ultimately triumphs.
The execrable German Marxist philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (who is best known today as the model for the character Wendall Kretzschmar one of the manifestations of the Devil in Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus) once famously remarked that after Auschwitz there can be no art. Although Adorno was no Nazi (indeed he spent World War II in exile in Hollywood where he devoted his time to denouncing America and ridiculing American cultureespecially Negro jazz) his willingness to deny art to those who had been brutalized by his fellow countrymen reveals an arrogance so profound that it is simply beyond the capacity to analyze. It also is a clear demonstration of how easily all Germans (whether of the left or the right) fall into the risible delusion that they somehow constitute a master race. For what Adorno is really saying is that since German culture has been found wanting no one else may be permitted to seek meaning and solace from art.
There can be only one response to Adorno and it is found in the final scene of The Pianist. The war is over and life has returned to Warsaw. Wladyslaw Szpilman is performing a concerto accompanied by a full orchestra. No words are spoken and the scene continues as the credits are rolling. But the message is clear. It is the raised middle finger proudly held aloft and it points towards Germany the remnants of the Nazi Party and Theodor W. Adorno.
Now back to the Germans yearning to rediscover their inner Nazis. I have to admit that it is a strange experience to watch a Holocaust film in Germany. It’s even stranger when you’re the only American in the midst of about 200 Germans. But perhaps the strangest thing of all is to watch the reactions of the Germans as the events of the movie unfold.
You hear a lot about how Germans are so ashamed today of the behavior of their countrymen during the Nazi period and about how much they’ve done to atone for their past sins. Don’t buy that bill of goods. If the audience of the screening I attended is any indication of German attitudes in general it doesn’t augur well for the future.
Remember this wasn’t an audience composed of skinheads from the neo-Nazi enclaves in Karlsruhe and the former DDR. This was a group of Germany’s best and brightest: educated middle classsophisticated denizens of a major cosmopolitan city.
One scene in particular is seared into my consciousness. It happens about halfway into the film. The Jews of Warsaw have been herded into the Ghetto. A street used by the Germans bisects the Ghetto. While a group of Jews is waiting to cross to the other side of the street several Nazi thugs force some elderly Jews to dance at an increasingly faster tempo. Weakened by malnutrition hobbling on crutches riddled with heart and lung infirmitiesmany of the Jews fall to the ground in sheer agony.
It’s a sickening scene. It’s the kind of scene that makes you ashamed that your last name is Grim. Hell it’s the kind of scene that makes you ashamed that you listen to Beethoven. If an American soldier had done the same to a German or Japanese POW he would have been thrown into the brig for life or cashiered out of the service on a Section 8. But there they were today’s educated freedom-lovinglet’s-all-hold-hands-and-love-one-another Germanslaughing at torture.
If there is a more sickening spectacle than Germans finding humor in what their fathers and grandfathers did to the Jews if there is a more perfect example of the utter lack if humanity at the core of the German nation I am unaware of it. There is something terribly wrong with Germany and the German Volk. The German soul is a deep abyss a fetid stinking morass that befouls the community of nations.
But wait there’s more. Another scene from the movie that stands out is when an SS guard announces to a half-starving Jewish work detail that they will be receiving an additional portion of bread with their rations one that they can sell to other Jews because everybody knows how clever the Jews are at selling things. This time the audience fairly rolled with laughter.
I was tempted to call in an airstrike on the theater or at the very least to punch out a couple of hundred Germans but I managed to hold my fire knowing that ultimately any World War II movie ends badly for the Germans. Normally I don’t talk back to the screen at the movies but I do have to admit that I did yell out ‘U.S.A’ and pumped my fist in the air when the Szpilman family listened to the announcement on the radio that the United States had declared war on Germany. And I also do have to admit that it felt mighty fine to yell out shoot those damn Nazis when the film showed the Jews starting to fight back during the Warsaw Uprising.
It’s funny how quiet the theater became when near the film’s end a group of SS goons were shown in a holding camp awaiting transportation to a deserved harsh fate in the Russian gulag. And then it became clear as a bell. German shame for World War II does not result from a moral awareness of the innumerable crimes and atrocities committed by the Germans. Nothe Germans are ashamed because they got their rear ends handed back to them by a bunch of Yanks
Russkies and Brits whom they considered – and still consider – to be members of inferior races.
After the movie was over I strolled along Schellingstrasse in the Schwabing district of Munich. By chance I happened to pass the site of the original headquarters of the Nazi Party. It’s an interior decorating company now. How appropriate. On the surface Germany may be a changed nation far removed from the heyday of its Nazi period. But it’s all a facade. The wallpaper and carpeting may be newthe portraits of Hitler may have been replaced by African objets d’art but the foundation of the structure is Nazi through and through.
And as the German economy plunges further into a recession that is largely of its own making as even German economists begin to notice the disturbing parallels between the economies of 2002 and 1932 the question remains as to how long it will be before the Germans let their inner Nazis manifest themselves in public. The Eternal Nazi I’m afraidwill be with us as long as there is a German nation. The Pianist is a great film and an even greater cautionary tale because history has an unfortunate way of repeating itself. (ZCPortal.com)