Saturday, March 28, 2015

Rashomon at Berchtesgaden

The Rashomon effect is a psychological term that describes cases in which different witnesses offer contradictory accounts of a given event. The phrase comes from Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, in which a samurai is killed and his wife apparently raped. Testimony from various witnesses, including the ghost of the dead samurai, all tell different, but plausible, stories of what actually happened.

                                Rashomon poster

I am convinced that when Kurosawa made this film, his theme came from the fact that the Japanese people, once they had been subjected to American occupation, were told a completely different story from that which their government had been telling them for years. This must have had a profound effect on the Japanese in general, and on Kurosawa as well. This would explain why his characters refer to the destructiveness of war in the movie’s dialogue – even though the short stories on which the script is based don’t even mention war. It might also explain why Kurosawa’s Rashomon gate is so reminiscent of the ruins of Hiroshima.

              The Great Ruined Gate of Rashomon

             The “Atom Bomb Dome” of Hiroshima

How must the Japanese people have felt in 1945, when they discovered that the entire world in which they had been living for decades was a government fabricated fantasy? Suddenly they had to rethink everything in terms of the very different story the American occupation now told them. In this clash of contradictory worldviews, I believe, Kurosawa found his Rashomon theme.

I recently read the memoir of Traudl Junge, a woman who served as Adolf Hitler’s secretary in his residences at the Wolf’s Lair and at Berchtesgaden. When the war was over and the Nazi propaganda machine destroyed, Frau Junge also faced the shock of discovering that the world was not as her boss and his associates had described it to her.

She first began to understand how badly misled she had been in May of 1945 when, as a prisoner of Soviet soldiers, she heard story after story of Nazi brutality in Russia. Later, when she wound up living in the American zone, she had access to a variety of news sources and she came to absorb the full story of Nazi atrocities and German belligerence. Encouraged to write her memoir, she eventually produced Hitler’s Last Secretary: A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler in 1947.

                          Traudl Junge, ca. 1943

To write about Hitler, as I am doing here, one feels obligated to express sentiments of loathing and disgust. I don’t find this a problem since, in fact, these feelings come quite naturally to me when dealing with this subject. But I wonder if, by reducing Hitler to nothing but an object of contempt, we might be letting ourselves off the hook a bit - not to mention offering second-rate Hollywood directors the handiest villainous plot device ever.

If Hitler was a pure and seamless villain whose every act bespoke deep-seated evil, it becomes all too easy for us to believe that nothing in us has any connection to him and his kind.

But Hitler was other things besides a monster, and Traudl’s memoir offers us a look at some of those other things. He was, for example, a tedious bore at times, who so enjoyed the company of his secretary and other staff members that he required that they stay up late after dinner to keep him company and, sometimes, listen to his oft-told stories. In many ways Junge’s portrayal brings to mind a somewhat pompous yet well-meaning (!) elderly uncle who wants to be liked and is careful to be polite and hospitable to his guests. He always seemed particularly solicitous toward the ladies. Those around him at the Wolf’s Lair and Berchtesgaden, like Traudl herself, did seem to like him, though they found some of his expectations tiresome.

And he was very fond of his German shepherd, Blondi:

“Hitler played all kinds of little games with her. He got her to beg and ‘be a schoolgirl,’ which meant getting up on her hind legs and putting both front paws on the arm of Hitler’s chair, like a good little school pupil. Her best turn was singing. Hitler would tell her in his kindest, coaxing voice, “Sing, Blondi!’ and then he struck up a long, drawn out howl himself” (p. 92*).

It is well-known that Hitler was a dedicated vegetarian, and he sometimes needled his staff and his guests by describing in detail the blood-drenched slaughterhouses in which their meat was prepared.

Of the leading Nazis that Traudl met, Goebbels seemed to impress her the most. He was quick-witted and full of verve, though his wit was often used at others’ expense. She writes that though he was not particularly handsome, she could understand why so many women were attracted to him.

Himmler she disliked, but not for his brutality - of which he presented no evidence during his time at the Berchtesgaden, at least in front of the staff. She found him to be “ordinary and insincere, rather like a civil servant.” His descriptions of the concentration camps made them sound like benevolent institutions where the inmates lived comfortable lives and were “trained and educated” (94-95).

Ribbentrop was an odd man, dreamy and absent-minded, “and if I hadn’t known that he was Foreign Minister I’d have said he was a cranky eccentric, leading a strange life of his own” (95).

In 1943 Traudl Junge (whose maiden name was Humps) married a young aide named Hans Junge who, it turns out, was a member of the SS. The SS was an elite group within the German army, known not only for its fighting spirit but also for its dedication to Nazi ideology and its leading role in the Holocaust. Hans was killed on the Russian front before Traudl got to know him beyond their various courtship meetings in Berchtesgaden. When she married him, the SS was to Traudle, not an organization dedicated to evil, but a high status military unit.

                                  Traudl and Hans

Junge doesn’t try to excuse herself, and, her writing is straightforward enough that I am convinced that she was actually unaware of the horrors that Hitler’s underlings were inflicting on the people of Europe. There was one occasion when the truth threatened to break out in Berchtesgaden when the daughter of Nazi photographer Heinrich Hoffman raised the issue of the mistreatment of the Jews. Junge writes:

“I wasn’t present myself, but Hans Junge told me about it. As Hitler was sitting by the hearth with his guests, she suddenly said, ‘My Fuhrer, I saw a train full of deported Jews in Amsterdam the other day. Those poor people – they look terrible. I’m sure they’re being very badly treated. Do you know about it? Do you allow it?’ There was a painful silence. Soon after, Hitler rose to his feet, said goodnight and withdrew. Next day [Hoffman’s daughter] went back to Vienna, and not a word was said about the incident. Apparently she had exceeded her rights as a guest and failed to carry out her duty of entertaining Hitler” (p. 88).

Traudl Junge’s book is fascinating to me, and I appreciate the way she lays everything out, admitting her foolishness and even cowardice in not looking hard at what was happening in Germany while she enjoyed her privileged status. One of its more interesting aspects is its revelation of what sort of a man Hitler was when he was not being a dictator, and the mechanisms he employed to keep his bourgeois home life separate from the ruthless depravity of his politics. Furthermore, I find it interesting (and disturbing) to see just how blind people can be when they are systematically led to believe a story that is almost entirely false - until catastrophe shatters their dream state and shocks them into seeing what the world really looks like.

·       *The quotations here come from a later, 2002, edition of Junge’s book, Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary by Traudl Junge, edited by Melissa Muller and translated from the German by Anthea Bell. New York: Arcade Publishing.