LOS ANGELES, Oct. 30 (JTA) — Sixty-seven years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi-organized mobs burned and looted thousands of German synagogues and Jewish stores during Kristallnacht, the opening salvo of the Holocaust. How are the grandchildren of the perpetrators dealing with this legacy? Four new German movies show that far from forgetting its nation’s past, today’s generation is still wrestling with it, at times obsessively. The Germans have a word, of course multi-syllabic, for this internal struggle. It’s Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, literally mastering the past, but better understood as “coming to terms with the past.” The four films themselves can be divided into three categories, or three ways of wrestling with the Nazi legacy: As a documentary on the past evil. As two movies celebrating “good” Germans, who resisted. And through one idiosyncratic comedy that carries the hope that Germans and Jews are beginning to see each other as just normal neighbors, without guilt or rancor. “The Goebbels Experiment” is the least artful and most depressing film of the lot, but it casts a hypnotic spell. Joseph Goebbels was the brilliant propaganda minister — Reich liar-general — of the Nazi regime, and he kept voluminous diaries throughout his life. What the film does is to let Goebbels speak for 107 minutes, via the English narration of actor-director Kenneth Branagh, while illustrating the words with appropriate news clips. Goebbels was a man of unprepossessing appearance — small, sallow-faced and born with a clubfoot. While to the outside, the Nazi leadership presented a solid front, united in devotion to Hitler, the diaries present a picture of bitter rivalries and palace intrigues. Goering is described by Goebbels as a “morphine addict and megalomaniac” and SS chief Heinrich Himmler as one “who hates me and spies on me.” The documentary reveals Goebbels, through his own words, as vain, ambitious and a womanizer who deluded his people until the final moment through his total and skillful control of the country’s propaganda apparatus. In the end, he proved his loyalty to Hitler by having his wife, Magda, poison their five children in Hitler’s bunker, and then carrying out a mutual death pact with his wife. “Before the Fall” helps answer the question of why Nazi youngsters fought fanatically to the end when it was clear that the war was lost — and what happened to the few who dissented. The setting is an elite napola, a political institute where promising teenagers trained to become the future Nazi governors of Moscow and London. Their strictly regimented program set out to fulfill Hitler’s promise: “In my fortress, we shall raise a young generation that will make the world tremble with fear. I want a ruthless, commanding, fearless, savage youth. There should be nothing weak or fragile about it . . . I want my youths to be strong and handsome.” Graduation from a napola guaranteed a bright future career and this prospect lures 16-year-old Friedrich. Though he comes from a Communist-leaning working class family, Friedrich looks the ideal Aryan type and is a promising boxer. He fits right in until he befriends Albrecht, who, as an unatheletic sensitive book reader, is obviously out of place. Albrecht is there because his father, the regional Nazi governor, has the pull to force his son into the elite school. But when Albrecht protests the massacre of unarmed Soviet prisoners of war in the nearby woods, the story turns tragic. Friedrich stands up for his disgraced friend and is expelled. Director Dennis Gansel, only 31, said in a phone interview that he made the powerful film of youthful friendship and rebellion to appeal to today’s German teenagers. “They are bored with films about terrible Nazis and noble victims,” Gansel said. “They need characters with whom they can identify.” Gansel got an inside picture of life in a napola through his grandfather, who served as an instructor at an institute. Carrying the point much further that there were some Germans who refused to fall into line is “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.” Scholl, a belated heroine in postwar Germany, was a 21-year-old university student in Munich, who with her brother and some friends, organized the resistance group called The White Rose. In 1943, while surreptitiously stashing anti-Nazi leaflets at the university, she was caught, put through a show trial, and beheaded by a guillotine. The film is carried by the shattering performance of Julia Jentsch as Sophie, who stands up under Gestapo interrogation and chooses death rather than recant her beliefs. In a category of its own stands “Go for Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy,” which swept Germany’s top cinema awards this year as a surprise hit. This is a film that gets its laughs and warmth by showing what happens when a completely secular and assimilated Jew has to host a fervently Orthodox Jew. A similar plotline drives the current Israeli hit “Ushpizin,” with the difference that while the one is set in Jerusalem, the other takes place in contemporary Berlin. There middle-aged Jaeckie Zucker (formerly Jacob Zuckerman) ekes out a precarious existence as a poolshark and gambler. Raised in Communist East Berlin, while his mother and brother fled to the West, Jaeckie left the Jewish “club” a long time ago and is used to living on his wits, such as they are. His fortunes look up when he hears that his mother has died, leaving a sizeable estate. The catch is that as a condition of the inheritance he must reconcile with his long-estranged brother Samuel, a fervently Orthodox real estate tycoon from Frankfurt. When Samuel announces that he is coming with his family to Berlin to sit shiva at Jaeckie’s house, the gambler and his gentile wife panic. They take an instant crash course in Judaism and load up on mezuzahs, menorahs and kosher food. The encounter between the disparate brothers is good for just about every joke on the themes of Communist vs. capitalist, East vs. West Germany, and religious vs. agnostic Jew — with Chasid vs. lesbian and mama’s boy vs. sex bomb thrown in for good measure. To understand the popularity of “Zucker” among Germans, one must understand the artificial and insecure relationship between Germans and the country’s Jews, with each side nervous about offending the other. Director Dani Levy, a Swiss-born Jew whose parents had fled Berlin, thinks that “Zucker” has helped defuse some of the tensions. “Jews have always been able to laugh at themselves and here is a movie in which Germans can laugh with the Jews, not at them,” he said. “If we laugh with other people, that’s a sign that you like them. That’s the best way to win people over and cross borders.”
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.