Things I learned today:
- Roman Polanski experienced the Holocaust to a terrifying degree, losing his mother at Aushwitz, which puts his career as primarily a horror director into perspective (it doesn’t excuse his crimes and the bastard should have gone to jail – Fiat Iustitia, ruat astrum).
- There’s a whole sub-genre of Nazi horror cinema. I suppose I already knew this, but a blog calling itself Planet Auswitz analyzing it does rather Make It Official in a way.
For my money, the true Nazi Horror movie is Conspiracy. An HBO original from 2001, it gives you the other end of the monster. It takes place at a cushy conference in a lakeside villa. Not a drop of blood is spilled or a shot fired in anger. Nevertheless, it is a chilling meditation on human evil.
The film is about the Wannsee Conference, wherein high-ranking Nazi officials planned the Endlosung der Judenfrage – the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, what Jews call the Shoah (“Calamity”), and what popular culture refers to as the Holocaust. Note this nomenclature. What we commonly consider a bloodthirsty pogrom on a larger scale, some bizarrely Teutonic irruption of anti-Semitic feeling, was in fact an entirely rational conclusion of bureaucratic logic. The Nazis came to Wannsee to sort out this Jewish business, once and for all. And given the status of Jews in the Third Reich, and the ongoing war, that business could only get sorted out one way.
The film makes this clear. If you’ve ever been in one of those meetings where all discussion is an illusion, the decision has been made already, and you are just being informed of the expectation to enthusiastically lend your support, then you will get this film. The meeting begins with a palimpset of discussion of alternative solutions – mass sterilization, primarily – but although it’s practicalities are debated it isn’t serious for a minute. With that camel’s nose inside the tent, the SS shove towards acceptance of what was already being done – mass extermination of Jews throughout Eastern Europe — in fits and starts. As having soldiers shoot them one by one is impracticable, poison gas becomes the obvious solution.
The dawning horror on mens faces as they realize what this meeting really is and that they’re really going to do it, that no real debate or discussion exists, that the fix is in, makes this film a favorite of mine. The verite aspect as well: the actual Wannsee conference took place in just about the running time of the movie. And it’s perhaps my favorite Kenneth Branagh performance. He plays Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, as a consummate politician, gemutlichkeit, but the iron fist slips out of the velvet glove when it needs to. The SS takeover of Jewish Policy questions from every other relevant government agency is the real purpose of the meeting, and Branagh plays that skillfully.
These men, highly educated, deeply civilized, allowed their reason to be corrupted by a premise — Jews are the authors of the world’s ills — that they never examined. Once accepted, this idea drives all before it, until not just humanity and sympathy, but even law, become unreasonable. Spiritual horror at the inversion of morality hit on an altogether different level than zombies, even if both are really about the same thing.