Monday 09 September 2002

Portraying Hitler

Salon founder and editor-in-chief David Talbot interviews the creative team—director/writer Menno Meyjes, actor John Cusack and producer Andras Hamori—responsible for a controversial new film about Adolf Hitler that has its premiere today at the Toronto Film Festival.

Max traces Hitler’s transformation from a scruffy war veteran and frustrated painter to a rising propagandist for German nationalism and anti-Semitism. We see the future leader of the Third Reich through the eyes of another scarred survivor of World War I, Max Rothman (Cusack), a prosperous, Jewish, avant-garde art dealer who believes that only brutally honest art can restore sanity to the world. Rothman is repelled by Hitler’s political ideas, but enters into an odd friendship with the bitter young corporal, out of a kinship born of the First World War trenches and a desire to save his comrade through the healing power of art.

Unsurprisingly, even the idea of the film has prompted outrage—from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (who “branded Max a cynical exploitation”) and the Jewish Defence League, which called for the film to be shelved by its distributor, Lion’s Gate:

Not only is the film in bad taste, it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community. There is no moral justification for making such a movie. To glorify or humanize Hitler makes a mockery of the 12 million — 6 million of them Jewish - victims of Hitler’s tyranny. There is nothing humorous or human about the most vicious, vile murderer in world history.

The JDL Web site subsequently posted an update, noting that they “have agreed to withhold judgment of Max until a copy of the script is obtained and an advanced screening is viewed.”

Reading Cusack, Meyjes, and Hamori’s defence of their film brought to mind Michael Frayn’s reply to those who had criticized him for allowing Werner Heisenberg to “make a case for himself” in Frayn’s play Copenhagen. In an article title ‘Copenhagen’ Revisited in the New York Review of Books (subscription required), Frayn wrote:

This seems to me a chastening reminder of the difficulties of representing a real person in fiction, but a profoundly sensible indication of the purpose in attempting it, which is surely to make explicit the ideas and feelings that never quite get expressed in the confusing onrush of life, and to bring out the underlying structure of events. I take it that the nineteenth-century German playwright Friedrich Hebbel was making a similar point when he uttered his great dictum (one that every playwright ought to have engraved over his desk): “In a good play everyone is right.” I assume he means by this not that the audience is invited to approve of everyone’s actions, but that everyone should be allowed the freedom and eloquence to make the most convincing case that he can for himself. Whether or not this is a universal rule of playwriting it must surely apply to this particular play, where a central argument is about our inability, in our observation of both the physical world and the mental, ever to escape from particular viewpoints…

I can imagine its being asked how far I think this principle should be carried. Do I believe that a fictitious Hitler should be accorded the same privileges? I can see all the problems of exhibiting Hitler on the stage, but I can’t see any point in attempting it at all if he is to be simply an effigy for ritual humiliation. Why should we be asked to endure a representation of his presence if he doesn’t offer us some understanding of what was going on inside his head from his own point of view? The audience can surely be trusted to draw its own moral conclusions.

That seems to be the point on which the argument hinges: can the audience be trusted to draw its own moral conclusions?

David Talbot writes:

While scores of biographies and history books have presented fully dimensional portraits of Hitler, no major movie until now has offered anything more than a cartoon picture of the 20th century’s apogee of evil: we have seen him on the screen only as a ranting and wild-eyed hysteric.

Opponents of the film say that any kind of nuance in Hitler’s character makes a mockery of the victims of his tyranny, a position stated most forcefully by Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, who argued that any attempt to explain Hitler’s motivations, to some degree exonerates his actions.

On the other hand, John Cusack—echoing Michael Frayn—says: “It’s easy to portray [Hitler] as a monster, it’s harder and more disturbing to show his humanity and how it became poisoned.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., a novella about Israeli Nazihunters who track down Hitler in the Amazonian jungle thirty years after the end of World War II. Critical attention has always focused on the electrifying last chapter where Hitler is allowed to speak, and for which Steiner (himself a Jew) was harshly criticized. Yet that criticism ignores the preceding chapters which painfully describe the impact of Hitler’s reign of terror on his victims. And, as an Amazon reviewer wrote: “Steiner has bravely put forth for all to contemplate, how seductive evil can be to those predisposed to hate.”

The alternative to the risks inherent in such a portrayal is a kind of one-dimensional work that raises no uncomfortable questions for the audience. There’s no need for introspection and self-examination when the blame can be conveniently dumped on a demented monster. The audience walks out of the theater two hours later, just as complacent as when they walked in. Yet Hitler had accomplices and sympathizers, not just in Germany, but all over the world. I wonder if putting all the responsibility onto him and a few henchmen doesn’t let everyone else off the hook…

In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum suggests a way out of this impasse:

Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist…the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler’s choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate…. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of the last laugh.

It remains to be seen whether the makers of Max were faithful to Rosenbaum’s advice.

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Isn't this what we're faced today with terrorism? Any attempt to understand the facts behind the actions is considered a wrongful act in itself, apart from the terrorism.

Until I read your posting, I never looked at Hitler as a 'person'. I know the dry facts of his life, and his heinous and overwhelmingly evil actions, but I never thought of him as a person.

I admire the people for putting on this play -- for showing that people aren't born evil, contrary to most opinions. By understanding the twists Hitler's psyche took, what made him what he was, we better understand our own dark selves.

Perhaps that's what we're all afraid of. This play will not have an easy time of it.

Posted by Burningbird on 10 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Interestingly, Lawrance M. Bernabo (one of the Amazon reviewers of The Portage to San Christobal of A.H.) wrote in his review:

"The second important chapter is the last, where Hitler is allowed to speak. The value of this chapter is that it gets beyond the memory of history to the heart of the evil. There is a fatal tendency in the modern world to equate Fascism with Hitler and the Nazis, which means anti-semitism and the Holocaust. The common folk on the street today would point to skinheads as being fascists. But Fascism is a dynamic built upon the Struggle for Order, a world in which the ends justify means that a democratic populace should scorn. Ultimately Steiner speaks to the ironic level on which Hitler achieved a victory of sorts, having cast the world in the image of his own ideology. Certainly the Cold War, which was still in bloom when Steiner wrote this book, is an example of the fascist ideology, where the demands of 'national security' becomes a justification for blind obedience."

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 10 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Ariel Sharon has done more to give perspective to Nazi propaganda than a team of hired Nazi propagandists. He sickens the world with his actions and American politicians and media in subtle and blatant forms goosestep to his agenda.

Posted by NONA on 3 October 2002 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by rice on 15 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by cire on 15 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I don't know if this is allowed but I was fascinated by this subject (I haven't seen the film yet) and found a review by Ron Rosenbaum on the site of the New York Observer. Rosenbaum is mentioned in the above article as the writer of the book Explaining Hitler:

Paging Mary McCarthy!
Barris and Hitler: Strange Triction
by Ron Rosenbaum

This column ran on page 1 in the 12/23/02 edition of The New York Observer:

The film has come under attack from certain Jewish groups on the grounds that there’s something wrong, even forbidden, about representing Hitler before the Holocaust, because any such representation must inevitably "humanize" him—in part by separating him from his victims. Similar criticisms have been made of the forthcoming CBS miniseries said to be based on the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s admirable biography of Hitler—because it wouldn’t present the Hitler of the Holocaust (which doesn’t take place until Mr. Kershaw’s second volume).

As someone who has been critical of idiot postmodern representations of Hitler and Nazi evil (see my essays here in The Observer on the Jewish Museum’s "Mirroring Evil" exhibit, March 18 and April 1, 2002), I know a lot depends on how these things are done. But my feeling is that to forbid any explorations of Hitler, any serious attempts to come to grips with his evolution without rubbing our noses in his millions of victims at every moment, is, in some way, to give Hitler more power over us than he merits. It becomes a kind of diabolical sacralizing, a perverse or inverse deification of Hitler that makes us unable to gaze upon his face.

Posted by renske verheul on 29 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"I don't know if this is allowed," Renske Verheul asked rhetorically when, in the previous comment, he included the full text of Ron Rosenbaum's New York Observer essay.

Since such an inclusion goes beyond the provisions of "fair use," I emailed Renske, seeking his agreement that I trim his post so that just a couple of paragraphs of Rosenbaum's piece were included, and also add a link to the original -- both of which I've done.

Posted by Jonathon on 3 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I saw the movie...and guess what guys. Hitler was a real man...Yes a monster.. but nonetheless a real man, with issues and the film showed that! There are plenty of monsters out there but people will still make movies about them and if you dont like it DONT WATCH IT! You people that say it should not have been made because of the inferences to the Jews...well so what...get over it!!!!! Enjoy the movie for what it is and portraits. What Hitler did (to 12 Million people-----NOT ONLY JEWS) is certainly unspeakable...but it is what it is and a part of our history!

Posted by Stan Whitten on 22 May 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"Since such an inclusion goes beyond the provisions of "fair use," I emailed Renske, seeking his agreement that I trim his post so that just a couple of paragraphs of Rosenbaum's piece were included, and also add a link to the original -- both of which I've done."

Ahem.. it is actually 'her agreement' and 'her post' since I am of the female sex.

Posted by renske verheul on 30 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

renske: So is Renske a form of Francesca? Or Renee? I hope you don't mind my asking; I love proper-name etymologies.

Posted by language hat on 30 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour