A subject for sympathy: Germany's rehabilitation

Inspired by historical accounts that chronicle suffering within the Third Reich, cinema is starting to look compassionately at the Nazis, writes Nick Hasted
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Is Nazi Germany a fit subject for sympathy? In the case of individuals caught up in the conflagration of the Second World War's final days, three upcoming films suggest that the answer may be a careful yes. Paul Verhoeven's Black Book has its Jewish-Dutch resistance heroine falling for the humane SS chief she's sent to spy on. Steven Soderbergh's The Good German is set in Allied-occupied Berlin in 1945, exploring its morally and physically devastated population, and corrupt US motives as the Cold War looms. Reg Traviss's Joy Division, most remarkably, ignores the Holocaust, instead following a German boy soldier in 1944 through to his life as a Soviet spy in Sixties London, showing the subjective experience of German civilians as they're bombed by the British and raped by the Russians, and the savage situations its uncomprehending 14-year-old Nazi is subject to.

This shift in perspective has arrived with the 21st century, with the war's reality six decades gone. Anthony Beevor's best-selling 2002 history book Berlin: The Downfall 1945 was one catalyst, using newly uncovered Soviet documents to detail the Red Army's systematic rape of almost every woman in its path, as it bludgeoned its way through East Prussia towards Hitler's capital.

The sheer horror of German civilian suffering, and the despairing heroism of its shattered armies, was impossible to avoid, even as Beevor fought to keep the Nazis' culpability for everything visited on them, and ongoing crimes, in view. British bookshelves have since groaned with similar bestsellers, including Max Hastings's Berlin narrative, Armageddon, and Frederick Taylor's Dresden: February 13, 1945.

Cinema's newly humane view of Nazi Germany's last days began in parallel with this literature. The Austrian documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002) was the beginning, holding its camera on Traudl Junge as she recalled happy teenage days working for kind and funny Adolf Hitler, a man too squeamish to mention the Holocaust or see his country's bombed ruins through his train's blacked-out windows, till the deadly horror of the last days in the Bunker, and Junge's subsequent, palpable life-long guilt at not seeing and resisting the nightmare unfolding in front of her.

Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (2004), in some ways an adaptation of both Blind Spot and Berlin, then dwarfed both in impact. This German film took us into the heart of the Berlin inferno, setting us alongside ragtag German platoons as the Red Army battered them back foot by foot toward's Hitler's lair, and the city became a hellish husk.

It also followed Junge in leading us inside the bunker and making the chief Nazis' evil clammily close, by at last making them human. Magda Goebbels's poisoning of her own children, and Hitler's hurling of Berlin's population into a knowingly futile last stand, gave a fresh angle on Nazi atrocities.

In the final scenes of numbed Germans shuffling through the Third Reich's ruins, this international hit also forced audiences in Germany and elsewhere into something like sympathy for the generation that fought for Hitler, even as it renewed our sense of its disgrace.

Hollywood did not follow this lead. Aside from the caricature-Nazis of films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), its own revived interest in the Second World War has come from Steven Spielberg (also the director of Raiders), with Schindler's List (1993), then Saving Private Ryan (1998) and its television offspring, Band of Brothers. Though the first film's only slightly sentimental version of the Holocaust was valuable for a new generation, subsequent tales of GIs marching through a Europe shorn of political context stimulated only patriotic books and movies, which basked in America's part in what Studs Terkel's 1985 book called The Good War.

Despite the visceral violence of its D-Day scenes, Ryan's values and assumptions were the same as in Hollywood films made during the war. The fact that most anti-Nazi fighting was done by Stalin's Russia, a more efficiently cruel and brutal regime, can't find a place in this commonly held world-view, which Hollywood did so much to construct.

Of course, there have been previous British and American attempts to see humanity in their beaten enemies, notably Sam Fuller's anti-Nazi B-movie Verboten! (1958) and Carol Reed's The Man Between (1953), both set in Germany immediately after the war, when the suffering of millions of the country's refugees and its place in Cold War power-plays with Russia were well understood; Reed's footage of the icy, burnt-out Berlin that Downfall recreates, and its orphan children, is especially unforgettable.

It is this morally grey world that Steven Soderbergh's The Good German returns to, becoming the first mainstream US film to attempt a new, radical perspective. Based on Joseph Kanon's bestselling novel and starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire, it is very much in Third Man territory, with black marketeers, a missing German being hunted by both sides of the just-starting Cold War, and the Holocaust hanging over it all. Opening here in March, it is unseen as yet. But its very title promises the ambiguity and nuance now entering European perspectives on the war.

Black Book, Verhoeven's grand return to Holland after time in Hollywood making films such as Basic Instinct, is in some ways a more traditional Second World War movie, a rip-roaring adventure tale of the Dutch resistance in the final months of Nazi occupation. But Verhoeven, who was a child at the time, vividly remembers seeing corpses of Nazi victims left lying in the street, and has worked on the script for 20 years, is not content just to show Dutch heroism.

In a period of general terror and moral contingency, as Nazis who knew they were losing the war and would soon be called to account remained the country's brutal rulers, everyone becomes compromised. Black Book shows Nazi atrocities, especially against Dutch Jews, in unswerving detail. But its Jewish heroine and an SS chief with human foibles also fall in love, and the Dutch treatment of both at war's end is vicious.

Influenced by a Dutch revisionist history book, Chris van der Heyden's Grijs Verleden (2001), it is Verhoeven's corrective to his own popular tale of Dutch resistance heroics, Soldier of Orange (1977). "I wanted to show what reality was like then," he has said. "Not black and white, but in shades of grey. That is what makes our film so provocative. Nobody has yet shown how we treated our prisoners in 1945."

But it is Traviss's low-budget British film Joy Division that is perhaps the most daring of all. Heavily influenced by Beevor's Berlin, it interweaves narrative strands from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, to show the eventual moral awakening of a Hitler Youth boy turned Soviet spy. Early scenes, of its hero as a 14-year-old brownshirt in puppy love with his blonde neighbour, give way to his immersion in desperate streetfighting as the Red Army enters East Prussia, where its planes strafe refugees and his girlfriend is gang-raped. Captured by Russians, the Cold War continues his moral numbing. But it is the scenes of German suffering, with no alleviating context of Nazi aggression or atrocity, that are challenging and powerful.

"It was a big script originally, with Polish Jews and a concentration camp survivor in early drafts," Traviss tells me. "In the final version, you don't see the Wehrmacht rushing east, you don't see the Holocaust, which I regret. But that knowledge is assumed. We're focusing on something that hasn't been seen before; from our perspective, the darker side of the war, where troops of our allies were not heroic. Of course there is truth in the idea the Russians committed atrocities in revenge. But there's also a dark side to human nature. And if you're mobilising an army over someone's border, and there's no defence, just women and kids, then that army's dark side may come too. I don't think all those civilians could be held accountable for the Third Reich's crimes. The teenage characters especially had just been born when Hitler came to power. They're innocent."

Traviss has a simple answer to why this new perspective is gaining ground. "Anthony Beevor talked about how enough time had passed to write books like his, and predicted that films would be next. And apart from the humanist aspect of wanting to understand such suffering, the war's been a huge part of popular culture as well, with films like The Dirty Dozen. As a genre, after Spielberg's late-Nineties realist approach, what could be next? "Well, the end of the war hadn't really been done. The search for stories is endless. And now film-makers have found 1945, and found it's much richer than that Dirty Dozen stuff."

All these films are on delicate ground, trodden carefully for 60 years because no one wants to let Nazi horrors become just another bit of history, to be debated or forgotten. But in showing a fuller picture, of humanity and atrocity on both sides, they may teach truer lessons than the simple story of the Good War that Hollywood has told until now.

'Joy Division' opens today; 'Black Book' opens on 19 January