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Kampf und Circumstance 

The Führer’s girl Friday; Gilliam’s folly

Thursday, Jan 30 2003
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When the movie Max -- a fictionalized account of Hitler’s youth as an aspiring artist -- was released last Christmas, some Jewish notables objected, complaining that the film ”humanized“ Hitler and was therefore inaccurate. They‘re going to have an even harder time with a new documentary about how nice Hitler was to the help. In the film Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, Traudl Junge, the woman to whom Hitler dictated his last will and political testament in the Berlin bunker, drops 60 years of self-imposed silence to tell what it was like to live with the Fuhrer on the slippery slope down from Stalingrad.

Young Traudl Humps (as she was in 1942), a novice secretary from Bavaria, took to her new employer on sight. The ”lovely old gentleman“ was kind and attentive, had courtly manners, and proved as solicitous of his employees as he was of his lover, Eva Braun, and his beloved dog, Blondi. He preferred to lunch with his secretaries instead of his adjutants -- the pretty young women were his intimates, and none more so than Humps, his private secretary. He roared with appreciative laughter when she stoutly informed him that she had managed without a man all her life (she was 22) and was not about to run off and get married now. Best of all, he addressed her as ”my child,“ which was enormously gratifying for a fatherless young woman who had grown up under the dubious care of a tyrannical grandfather.

That Hitler was also der Fuhrer signified little to his secretary except that he was the big cheese of a brave new Germany. To be attached to Hitler, a wised-up Traudl Junge (she was briefly married to a Hitler aide who was killed at the front) recalls in 2001, was to live in virtual quarantine from reality. He was a man who dealt only in abstractions -- humanity didn‘t interest him. His retinue traveled with him from his headquarters at Wolf’s Lair to Berlin in a special train with the blinds pulled down. The word ”Jew“ hardly ever came up. One unfortunate visitor who voiced a passing qualm over the way Jews were being treated was thrown out and never invited again -- a light punishment by Hitlerian standards, but indicative of the way the Fuhrer dismissed all evidence that muddied his obsession with the ideal.

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Still, he was a man. What makes Hitler appalling was not that he was inhuman, but that he expanded the range of human capacity for cruelty. Others have followed him: Watching Slobodan Milosevic -- isolated, unremorseful and contemptuous of his judges in the dock at the Hague -- who could doubt that, given the chance and the resources, he would have pursued ethnic cleansing to the full genocide of a people? As Junge painfully came to see, her boss kept his contradictions ever more monstrously compartmentalized as his fortunes waned. He worshipped Eva Braun (possibly without sex -- Hitler disliked being touched) but didn‘t hesitate to execute her brother-in-law for an alleged betrayal. He couldn’t stand flowers in his room because he hated being around anything dead. He liked dogs and children, very possibly in that order, but poisoned Blondi in the Berlin bunker to test whether the cyanide worked, and saw no reason to release Goebbels‘ six kids, who called him ”Uncle Hitler,“ from the bunker when the opportunity arose. And for all his promises to protect his staff, the Fuhrer withdrew into himself when all was lost, and committed suicide without heed to what would happen to those he left behind.

Junge’s testimony about the last days in Hitler‘s bunker will fascinate the layperson, but it adds little to what is already known by historians. The movie reveals much more about Junge herself and, by extension, about the way ordinary Germans dealt with Nazism both during and after the war. Blind Spot was directed by Andre Heller -- the son of a Viennese Holocaust survivor who died an opium-addicted wreck in London in 1958 -- with his Austrian colleague Othmar Schmiderer. Heller is an actor, musician and multimedia artist, but this Spartan documentary recalls the no-frills interviewing style of Claude Lanzmann’s famous Shoah, and his more recent Sobibor. Shot in 2001 in the one-roomed Munich apartment Junge had lived in for 50 years, the film is unadorned by fancy editing or de rigueur archival footage. Junge is elegant, self-possessed, and as analytical as one might expect from a former journalist and editor at a literary magazine. She doesn‘t plead; for the most part her demeanor is composed. From time to time Heller, in his only attempt at artifice, shows us Junge -- anxious and unguarded -- moving her lips as she watches herself give the interview on her television screen. We don’t know whether we‘re getting a reliving, a confessional or a tidied narrative of Junge’s past. Whichever it is -- very likely all three -- we see a woman who has engaged in a long, exhausting struggle with herself. Describing a system of tyranny so efficient, so insulated from the horrible acts committed in its name that it presented itself to her as normal, Junge comes close to excusing herself. She hated Hitler for what he did to the Jews and to Germany, but she hated him even more for being a bad father to her. Yet she also tells Heller she kept silent all those years because she could not forgive herself for her willful ignorance.

Junge managed to escape the bunker, and, like many young Germans, she was declared fully de-Nazified after the war. Even during the Nuremberg trials, though, she failed to grasp the enormity of what had happened. The late ‘40s and ’50s were an artfully constructed black hole in German national memory, and it was not until the ‘60s that Junge began to connect the dots. Walking past a statue of Sophie Scholl, the executed young leader of Germany’s minuscule wartime resistance movement, Junge realized that Scholl had been exactly the same age as she was while dutifully serving her master. Years later, confession liberated Junge in more ways than one. After the interview, she told Heller that now, perhaps, she could forgive herself. She died of cancer, just hours after the world premiere of Blind Spot at the Berlin Film Festival. It would take a hard heart not to forgive her -- or to ask what any of us would have done in her place.

Terry Gilliam has visual flair to burn, but I‘ve always felt more browbeaten than switched on by his heavily designed movies. Aside from the lovely The Fisher King, which was warmed by a genuine dramatic story and the presence of Jeff Bridges, Gilliam’s films have felt chilly and inhumane. I can‘t tell whether he’s a mad genius or a big, floppy kid hobbled by a gift for catastrophe and the desire to do as he pleases and hang the cost. Lost in La Mancha, the entertaining story of Gilliam‘s abortive attempt to put his own spin on the tale of Don Quixote, does little to clear the matter up.

Made by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who previously followed Gilliam around with a nosy camera during the making of Twelve Monkeys, the documentary (slowed by superfluous narration from Bridges, who’s there presumably to lend star power) works a facile parallel that has a limited shelf life. Gilliam has spent his career tilting at Hollywood windmills -- he tried for 10 years to get the Quixote movie going as a studio picture. In fact, though, the studios had bowed out well before the doc started. Gilliam decided to press ahead with European backing -- a risky proposition for someone as addicted to the grand scale as he is. The first part of Lost in La Mancha, which centers on pre-production, is pretty absorbing as Gilliam, an affable, impatient bear of a man with a machine-gun giggle, tries to pull together his enormously ambitious plans with inadequate funds, stars (Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis) with impossibly tight schedules, and a pan-European babel of a crew. (”Making a film with Terry is like riding a bareback pony,“ says his stoical Aussie assistant director, Phil Patterson.) Watching this mayhem, you wonder how any movie ever gets made.

The rest is like watching a disaster movie, for what finally scuppers the project is not the undeniably poor planning and coordination, but nature and rotten luck in biblical doses. Too bad for Gilliam and everyone involved, but in the departments of spectacle and schadenfreude, great fun for us.

BLIND SPOT: HITLER‘S SECRETARY | Directed by ANDRE HELLER and OTHMAR SCHMIDERER | Produced by DANNY KRAUSZ and KURT STOCKER | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Laemmle’s Music Hall

LOST IN LA MANCHA | Written and directed by KEITH FULTON and LOUIS PEPE | Produced by LUCY DARWIN | Released by IFC Films | At the Nuart

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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