In the cultural upheaval following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a wave of German historical films cast a critical eye backward to Germany’s painful 20th-century history.
Most of these “post-wall” historical films focus on World War II, the Nazi era and the Holocaust, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), starring Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler (the source for all those Internet parody videos with Hitler ranting to altered subtitles). One of the best-known such films, the Academy Award-winning The Lives of Others (2006), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, depicted the Stasi-era East Berlin surveillance state circa 1984.
These new German historical films or “German heritage films” are typically accessible and popular in form, classically realistic in style, and moralistic in tone, inviting viewers to empathize with historical figures or characters in historical contexts in their individual choices to collaborate or to resist, and to contemplate what we would have done in that situation.
Two such films focus particularly on devout Christians active in underground resistance movements.
German actor Ulrich Matthes, who portrayed the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in Downfall, more or less simultaneously played a diametrically opposed role in another 2004 film, The Ninth Day: a Catholic priest imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp for his involvement in the Luxembourg resistance.
Matthes’ character, Abbé Henri Kremer, is loosely based on a real priest, Jean Bernard, who kept a prison diary describing the horrors of the Dachau camp’s “priest block,” a barracks that has been ironically described as the largest religious community in the world, with over 2500 Catholic clergy and religious, 109 Protestants, 22 Eastern Orthodox, and two Muslim imams.
The following year, Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days depicted the last six days in the life of 21-year-old college student Sophia Magdalena Scholl, who was beheaded in 1943 with her brother Hans and fellow conspirator Christoph Probst for their involvement in a nonviolent resistance group called the White Rose.
Probst was Catholic; the Scholls were Lutherans, but on the day of their execution they requested to be received into the Catholic Church before they died. They were dissuaded from doing so, however, by their Lutheran pastor’s objection that converting would compound the grief of their mother.
Catholic influences on the Scholls, besides Probst and other friends, included Blessed August von Galen, bishop (later cardinal) of Münster, who condemned Nazi eugenics and racial cleansing atrocities, and Blessed John Henry Newman, whose writings on the inviolability of conscience deeply influenced the Scholls. (Sophie gave a two-volume set of Newman’s writings to a boyfriend, career officer Fritz Hartnagel.)
Both films revolve around a number of tense cat-and-mouse interviews between the believing protagonist and a shrewd Nazi antagonist. The Ninth Day turns on a remarkable fact-based episode in the protagonist’s imprisonment, a nine-day release from Dachau during which he meets repeatedly with a bright young German officer named Untersturmführer Gebhardt, played by August Diehl. The main drama in Sophie Scholl is driven by the interrogations of Sophie by savvy Gestapo operative Robert Mohr, played by Gerald Alexander Held.
The interviews in both films are a clash of worldviews. In The Ninth Day the exchanges are openly religious: Gebhardt cheerfully tells Abbé Kremer that he almost became a priest himself instead of a Nazi officer, and waxes theological about the meaning of Jesus’ Jewish identity (which he says Jesus rejected and sought to transcend) and Judas Iscariot (whom he describes as Jesus’ great collaborator).
The subject of the Church’s response to Nazism is also broached, with some complexity. On the one hand, a complacent Nazi officer cites Vatican condemnations of Allied bombing of German cities and even birthday greetings to Hitler, remarking, “I have no quarrel with the Vatican.” Even Kremer confesses to his bishop, “I never doubt the Church, but sometimes I doubt the Holy Father.”
“Do you know what happened in the Netherlands?” the bishop responds, invoking the Dutch bishops’ 1942 pastoral letter condemning the Nazi deportation of Dutch Jews. In retaliation, the Nazis rounded up over 40,000 Catholics of Jewish descent (including Saint Edith Stein and her sister, who died in Auschwitz). “That pastoral letter sent 40,000 to their doom. What would be the cost of a letter from the pope? 300,000? 400,000?”
In Sophie Scholl the debate is more moral in character, though God is always at least in the background. Sophie argues for the equal dignity of all people, Jew or Gentile, physically or mentally handicapped or otherwise. “Every life has value,” she says.
“What you’re talking about has nothing to do with reality,” Mohr scoffs.
“Of course it has to do with reality — reality, decency, morality, and God,” Sophie counters.
In both films, there is an element of temptation; the Nazi antagonist wants the believing protagonist to renounce his or her principles and affirm National Socialism. In The Ninth Day, this is for political reasons; Gebhardt and his superiors are looking for propaganda to use against the recalcitrant bishop of Luxembourg and against the Vatican.
In Sophie Scholl, Mohr’s motives are more complex. He wants Sophie to testify against her brother and say that she was influenced by him, partly to aid Mohr’s case, but also because it seems Mohr would prefer to save Sophie’s life. Understandably, he seems rather taken, in a paternal way, with his young prisoner’s luminous intelligence and indomitable conviction.
Gebhardt, likewise, is fascinated by Abbé Kremer, though the age difference there is reversed. German cinema has long been interested in generation gaps, and in both films one of the two characters might be old enough to be the other’s father.
In The Ninth Day, young, fresh-faced Gebhardt embodies a utilitarian modernity that has broken with Europe’s Christian past, represented by the older Abbé Kremer. Sophie Scholl reverses this: Mohr typifies the authoritarianism and conformity of the Nazi regime, while young Sophie spoke for generations of post-WWII Germans ashamed of what their nation became under the Third Reich.
Incidentally, despite the significant spiritual and religious themes of both films, neither director is a Christian. Schlöndorff studied at a Jesuit boarding school, but says he is not religious. Rothemund is an atheist.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.