By all means mention the war

The latest hit film in Germany follows the fortunes of some Jewish singers in the Hitler years. It is not a happy story. But it is a clear sign that for a new generation of Germans the past is no longer a foreign country.
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The Germans, we keep hearing, are determined to turn their backs on history. They want to pretend that the past never happened, and move on. Move on, yes. Forget the past? Hardly.

Disbelievers should consider the case of the German movie Comedian Harmonists, which was shown as the opening film at the recent German Film Festival in London. The storyline of Comedian Harmonists, a huge box-office hit in Germany in the past 12 months, is taken from real life, and is, on one level, straightforwardly charming. The Comedian Harmonists were a hugely successful dinner-jacketed group (five singers and a pianist) whose light-hearted lyrics and neatly interwoven harmonies went down a storm in Germany and around the world in the late Twenties and early Thirties. Part of the story is Hollywood-familiar. A struggling actor-singer has a bright idea. He places a classified ad in a local paper to form the singing group he has long dreamed of. He falls in love with the girl in the music shop on the corner - and later loses her to a fellow-member of the group. Poverty and failure are followed by glamour and success - and the next upbeat showbiz number is never more than a few minutes away. It is the classic feel-good movie theme. The original recordings of the Comedian Harmonists have been digitally tweaked to make them sound daisy-fresh, dubbed over the actors' mimed performances. As the upbeat selling line declares: "A legend returns."

A quite different theme runs in parallel, however, and gradually becomes the dominant storyline. The action takes place on the political cusp between democracy and dictatorship. So far, so Cabaret-like. As an additional twist, three members of the Comedian Harmonists are Jewish. The changing climate in Germany is poignantly reflected in the fate of the group itself.

The film ends in 1935, when the group is ordered to disband, after a triumphant final concert in Munich. The Jewish members are banned from performing, and leave the country. There are no references to concentration camps, no heavy-duty suffering. But the salami-slicing away of Jewish rights is just as powerful, in its way, in depicting the nature of the regime. When the group's leader, Harry, is first summoned by a Nazi official, the bureaucrat hints that exceptions can still be made for the famous Comedian Harmonists - "Maybe you have an Aryan grandmother?" he asks meaningfully, before adding: "We are not monsters, you know." Naturally.

The complicity of ordinary Germans is clear. This was not just a Gewaltherrschaft, a "rule of violence" (to use the comforting phrase that was popular in West German official-speak) against ordinary Germans. The overwhelming majority allowed the changes to take place. Twenty years ago, few Germans were ready to accept that obvious truth. Now, it surprises nobody.

Hitler's Willing Executioners, by the American historian Daniel Goldhagen, famously depicts the Germans as a nation hell-bent on exterminating the Jews in their midst. But this film reminds us of another important reality - which partly calls into question the Goldhagen thesis. Until the arrival of Hitler, many - including the Comedian Harmonists themselves - saw themselves as Germans and Jews.

In the movie, the Jewish owner of the local music-shop, who lost both his children fighting for the fatherland in the First World War, is confident that the problems of anti-Semitic harassment will soon be sorted out. "Let's not get upset," he says. "We live in Germany, after all. We have law and order here, Recht und Ordnung. And that's how it will stay." Later, when he confronts a policeman who has failed to take action against Nazi thugs, the policeman curtly dismisses him: "Get out of here, you Jewish pig." Herr Grunbaum looks simply stunned. What has happened to his Germany?

Comedian Harmonists is set in the same period, has many of the same charms, and even has the same production designer - Rolf Zehetbauer - as Cabaret, made a quarter of a century earlier. Cabaret sold itself as a "divinely decadent experience", encasing its politics in a sugary coating. In many respects, Comedian Harmonists does the same thing. In some respects, this is politics lite.

But that is the point: the politics - including the evil of Nazism, and the complicity of ordinary Germans - can be taken for granted. That is an almost 180-degree change. I first saw Cabaret when I lived as a student in Berlin in 1973. I vividly remember the uncomfortable shifting in the cinema seats around me during the famous "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" country- pub scene, where the connection between respectable burghers and rabid brownshirts is vividly laid bare. The roving camera laid the implicit charge: all these joyous faces are responsible, in their way, for the nightmare that followed. Thirty years after the war, Cabaret was still an uncomfortable film for many Germans to watch: millions were determined not to acknowledge that Germans themselves had been an important part of the problem.

As one Sixties school history book complained, Auschwitz "besmirched the reputation of the German people all over the world", even though "only a few tens of thousands" of German were involved. In short: a nation of innocents. Now, by contrast, the line has changed. Pupils are encouraged in the latest textbooks to look at "the [lack of] public reaction" to what happened in the Hitler era. Spielberg's Schindler's List is used in schools, as an educational tool to prove that "The excuse that 'all resistance is pointless' does not work".

These changes in attitude are crucial. And yet, those changes are scarcely reflected in this country. Harry Enfield depicts a German character, harping incessantly and exhaustingly on his country's guilt, who is vividly recognisable from real life. But much of the British media still seem to believe that Germany still inhabits the "Don't mention the war" territory of Basil Fawlty.

Certainly, neo-Nazi thuggery is alive and well in Germany today. But the neo-Nazis are explicitly alienated from the main body of German society (which is one reason why they are stronger in the east). In previous years, the German establishment itself was loath to ask searching questions regarding Germany's past. Basil was partly right: once upon a time, Germans really didn't want to talk about the war. Hanno Huth, producer of Comedian Harmonists, remembers how cinema managers in Germany 20 years ago loathed the idea of showing imported Second World War movies. "They used to say: 'Not another Nazi film.' But that has changed completely, in the meantime."

Thus, Schindler's List was a huge success in Germany. In most countries where the film was shown, the main theme was seen as the evil of Nazism. In Germany, where the evil of the Holocaust was taken for granted, the main theme was the possibility for an individual to show Zivilcourage. The question that repeatedly arose was: "Why did we have so few Schindlers?"

One of the most telling details of Comedian Harmonists - again, taken from real life - is that the members of the group did not even know who was or was not Jewish, before the Nazis came to power. Until 1933, the group consisted of six Berliners; after 1933, with the same line-up, it suddenly consisted of three Germans and three Jews. What you see in Comedian Harmonists is a country turning cancerous before your very eyes. That makes for disturbing viewing - not least because of the lightness of the main storyline. The singers' attempt to avoid politics itself becomes a political act. The director, Joseph Vilsmaier, argues: "They were completely apolitical, which in the end is what condemned them." But the fact that a film such as Comedian Harmonists can be made (and adored) in Germany today is proof that the cancer is curable. Only the surgical scars remain.

Not that British audiences will necessarily have a chance to judge the film for themselves. Most West European countries have already bought Comedian Harmonists. Britain has not yet done so. Hanno Huth notes that Britain is "very difficult" to sell German films to. After all, the essence of the Germans is clear: they're very serious, and they don't want to talk about the war. Everybody knows that. So what's the point of a movie that suggests anything different?