Over the last decade, German filmmakers have begun churning out lavishly produced movies and television series dealing with the dark side of Germany’s recent history. The latest, most expensive, and internationally most successful example is Babylon Berlin, a crime series set in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, now streaming on Netflix in Australia, Canada, and the United States.
Germany is not the only country looking backward, of course. Many recent British and American movies have also focused on the run-up to World War II and the war itself, including The King’s Speech and Darkest Hour. But these films are stories of redemption, culminating in the heroism of the war against Adolf Hitler. Germany, by contrast, has to deal with a history of guilt and shame.
Most Germans today are proud of the way their country handles this legacy, but many of these recent productions fall short of what one might have expected from a generation of filmmakers and TV producers untainted by Nazism. While the shows dealing with communist East Germany are realistic, the Third Reich gets off too lightly. None of the new productions directly addresses the Holocaust or other Nazi crimes. The dramas don’t even focus on the resistance to Hitler. Instead, most Germans appear as victims.
This trend began back in 2006 with Dresden, a two-part TV drama set against the destruction of the German city by British and American bombers in February 1945. Some 12 million Germans watched the show. A year later, more than 11 million tuned in for Die Flucht (released as March of Millions in English), which focused on Germans fleeing the Red Army.
The 2013 miniseries Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (released as Generation War in English) continued the trend, tracing the fates of five young people from 1941 through to the end of the Third Reich. None of them are Nazis or have Nazi sympathies. As the series opens, the friends gather at a farewell party: Brothers Wilhelm and Friedhelm are off to the Eastern Front. Charlotte, a nurse, follows them. Greta, who stays home, seeks fame as a singer. Her lover, Viktor, is Jewish, despite the fact that Rassenschande — intimate relations between Aryans and non-Aryans — was already forbidden in 1935, punishable by prison and even death. Even more implausible is the fact that Viktor is one of the three friends who survive the war.
Advancing through the Soviet Union, Wilhelm and Friedhelm do come face to face with the Holocaust — but not in the form of German Einsatzgruppen and police battalions mowing down Jews. Instead, it is Ukrainian peasants who club Jewish men, women, and children to death. The German friends watch in horror, and their fellow soldiers actually intervene to save one of the children, though she is then shot by an SS officer.
What we don’t see is Germans screaming their allegiance to Hitler. Charlotte does expose the Jewish identity of a Russian nurse who has been conscripted to help in her field hospital, but she then agonizes over her betrayal, and the Jewish nurse returns, miraculously unharmed, at the end of the series. She is now a Red Army commissar and sends another Russian nurse to her death for supposedly collaborating with the Germans. This twist reinforces anti-Jewish stereotypes put out by the Nazis, who equated Jews with coldblooded Bolsheviks.
All these productions show Nazis as caricatures of evil, distinct from ordinary Germans. Individual communists, on the other hand, receive more realistic portrayals, sometimes even sympathetic ones. The brilliant series Weissensee, which ran from 2010 to 2015, is a Sopranos-style family melodrama centered on a Stasi officer in the 10 years leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Tannbach, which ran from 2015 to this year, is based loosely on the real-life village of Mödlareuth, which was divided between East and West Germany. And Deutschland 83 — written by Anna Winger, a British-American — follows a loyal young East German army officer blackmailed by the Stasi into becoming a spy in the West German army.
Each of these programs is crafted with a realism missing from the programs depicting World War II. The scenes in Tannbach that show the dispossession of the farmers in the Eastern part of the village are harrowing. Deutschland 83 shows how the Stasi infiltrated the West German peace movement.
Why do German films and TV series portray communism realistically but shy away from depicting the full extent of Nazi evil? Possibly because it was the Germans themselves who ultimately threw off the East German regime. The Russians imposed communism from without, and East Germans celebrated when the wall finally fell. National Socialism, on the other hand, was a popular movement; Germans continued to fight fanatically for the Führer for years after it was obvious that they’d lose the war. Yet the country has still not come to terms with this central fact, and these recent shows perpetuate the self-serving myth that the worst crime their forebears were guilty of was naiveté.
It is perhaps no coincidence then that Stefan Kolditz wrote both Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter and Dresden. Born in East Germany in 1956, Kolditz was a scriptwriter for communist state TV until the government collapsed. Like many East Germans who were quick to adapt to new realities, Kolditz advances the narrative that most people had nothing to do with the dictatorial regime. Both Nazism and communism appear as alien forces.
© 2018 | Foreign Policy