At the climax of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 homage to World War II genre movies, a German war hero who’s attending the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film based on his exploits (Pride of the Nation) is appalled to see the way in which his life has been transformed into bombastic “art.” While hard-boiled clichés that the soldier never uttered in real life hail down from the screen (“You cowardly American pig . . . you’re gonna pay for this!”), the camera keeps cutting to his face, on which the pleasure he initially felt at the prospect of becoming a cinematic star yields to mortification at having his deeds so patently inflated and falsified. Eventually he storms off in disgust, but it’s clear that his qualms aren’t shared by the audience: a gala gathering of top Nazi brass who roar their approval at the drama that has been so carefully designed to please them.
Historical fidelity or artistic license? The dilemma has long faced artists attempting to depict the war and, particularly, the Holocaust, the scope and the intensity of whose depravities have posed notorious problems of representation — have seemed, indeed, to threaten the possibility of artistic representation itself. And yet art (especially the popular arts of television and cinema, with their extraordinary ability to package history in a visually persuasive and emotionally involving way) has been unable to resist the Holocaust from the start. Orson Welles’s The Stranger, a noirish thriller about a hunt for a Nazi war criminal that was the first commercial feature to include footage of the camps, came out in 1946.
The quasi-documentarian impulse behind Welles’s decision to use real-life images to convey the bitter facts of history in a fictional drama informed many of the early Holocaust movies. This ingenuous realism was apparent in the first adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Stanley Kramer’s star-studded Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), in which invented courtroom testimony is called on to illuminate actual German crimes, as well as in the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust — the first major treatment of the subject on American television — and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). If Spielberg’s film represents the culmination of this stylistic period, that’s not accidental: it came out just as the generation who had been adults during the war was dying off. The obsessive visual detail (harrowing scenes shot inside cattle cars, or in what appears to be a gas chamber), like many such realistic gestures, is partly a nod of respect to the real sufferings of its subjects.
Since then, the task of telling this story has fallen, of necessity, to people who weren’t there to see it and who have increasingly scant access to those who were. (The memorable finale of Schindler’s List, which consists of documentary footage of elderly Schindlerjuden visiting their rescuer’s grave, could not be made today.) This bald historical fact has had two effects. First, the subjects of the films have shifted. Because every generation produces its own historiography, what it chooses to notice in the past shifts, too. It’s not surprising, for instance — given our culture’s valorization of empowerment — that some recent American films have emphasized Jewish armed resistance, as in Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), based on the true story of a band of Polish Jewish partisans.
Second, and more interestingly, the narrative, aesthetic, and even ethical styles of these historical films have become freer and more daring as the perceived imperative to document the event has lessened. This development is evident in some of the more controversial films of the past two decades: Roberto Benigni’s death-camp comedy Life Is Beautiful, say — or, for that matter, Tarantino’s Basterds, in which the war story, like so much else in his work, is subordinated to an overweening interest in his real subject: cinema’s ability to transform the raw material of history into entertainment.
Two new German films about the Holocaust and its aftermath illustrate the tension between these modes: the historic-realist and the artistic-inventive. It may be a symptom of our current obsession with information that both are interested less in the past itself than in the process by which the truth about the Holocaust was revealed and assimilated in postwar Germany. But because of that country’s relationship to this history, the issues of memory, representation, fictionalization, and authenticity take on a special piquancy.
By far the more conventional of the two is Giulio Ricciarelli’s Labyrinth of Lies, an earnest dramatization of the so-called Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial of 1963–65. A pivotal moment in Germany’s confrontation with its recent history, this federal trial was the first in which “ordinary Germans” — bakers, schoolteachers, and clerks who, taking advantage of the country’s postwar eagerness to forget the past, blithely returned to civilian life — were finally brought to justice for the part they’d played in the Holocaust. (The movie opens in 1958 and ends in 1963; the West Germany of the “economic miracle” years is sleekly evoked by the Mad Men–esque shots of midcentury offices and government buildings.)
As if infected by the ethos of the era it depicts, the storytelling in Labyrinth of Lies is relentlessly straightforward. Johann Radmann (a composite character who stands in for several prosecutors in the historical case) is an ambitious young lawyer who yearns for cases more interesting than the traffic violations he’s been saddled with. Early on, we see him delivering an impressive summation in a murder trial — only to realize, as the camera pulls back, that he’s in the men’s room, performing for a mirror. While sitting in his office one day, he overhears a story about a Jewish survivor who’s spotted his former Auschwitz tormentor, now working as a schoolteacher. Seeing his opportunity, Radmann investigates.
Predictably, the innocent Radmann’s reckoning with the past — he was just a child during the war years — is meant to foreshadow and mirror that of his more morally compromised countrymen. Urged on by a kindly boss and by a gadfly journalist whose fervor in pursuing war criminals turns out to hinge on a dark secret of his own, Radmann learns about the extent of the atrocities committed by Germans who, he marvels, don’t seem very different from himself. At one point he has to choose between expending resources on pursuing the infamous White Angel, Josef Mengele, information about whose whereabouts falls into his hands during the investigation, and bringing down prey that is smaller but ethically just as important. Toward the end of the movie, a depressed Radmann, overwhelmed by official resistance to his hunt, drunkenly accosts ordinary people in the street and demands to know whether they’d been Nazis.
Two subplots are meant to twine all this history around Radmann’s personal life. One brings the young man to a confrontation with the wartime past of his father, long since missing. The other concerns Marlene, the spirited young woman with whom he falls in love, a talented dressmaker whose ambitions, emblematic of the economic miracle, are as strong — and often as morally gray — as his own. (She’s not terribly bothered that the clientele for her pastel-colored confections are the wives of former Nazis.) The tension between Radmann’s absorption in the past and Marlene’s insistence on moving into the future is meant to illustrate a major historical theme, but the gesture founders, as attempts to create “relatability” so often do, on the grotesque difference in scale between the characters’ problems and the larger story.
“A German prosecutor not knowing what happened at Auschwitz is a disgrace!” a character berates Radmann early on in Labyrinth of Lies; by the end, he’s driving to Poland to say kaddish. It’s that kind of movie. I couldn’t help wishing for less earnestness and more artfulness. The early scene in which Radmann rehearses his role as a big-time lawyer seemed a missed opportunity to raise questions about performative artifice, and about the film’s own ability to represent the past. The Mengele subplot, which feels like a digression, might have been turned into an interesting metaphor for the competing temptations of humdrum “history” and glamorous “art” in precisely this kind of movie. But Labyrinth of Lies is too eager to tell the truth and get to its foregone conclusion: the beginning of the trials, and the inevitable title cards that describe their results. Early in the movie, someone warns the heroic prosecutor about the dangers of his quest for the truth: “Mr. Radmann, this is a labyrinth. Don’t lose yourself in it.” Labyrinth of Lies would have profited by getting a bit more lost in its themes, rather than careering past them.
It’s a nice coincidence that many of the unexplored implications of Ricciarelli’s story lie at the core of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix. Petzold’s new movie, which came to American theaters in July, treads the same territory — a postwar Germany torn between the duty to remember and the desire to forget — but derives its considerable interest from its knowing allusions to, and canny manipulation of, the cinematic artifice typical of the noir movies of the Forties and Fifties. Set in a graphically ruined Berlin just after the war, Phoenix tells the story of a ruined woman, and ponders the moral implications of her own attempts at “recovery.”
As the film opens, Nelly (the remarkable Nina Hoss, Petzold’s frequent muse), a Jewish Auschwitz survivor who’d been a popular chanteuse before the war, is returning to Berlin to have reconstructive surgery on her face, which has been shattered by a gunshot wound. “So, how do you want to look?” the surgeon asks her with unsettling jocularity, in a loaded moment that announces the movie’s central theme. “It’s your choice.” (In a Tarantinoesque moment, he playfully suggests that the disfigured Jewess take the face of the Swedish movie star and Nazi collaborator Zarah Leander.) But is it her choice? When Nelly, who insists that she wants her old face back, is warned by the surgeon that total reconstruction is “difficult,” we understand what’s at stake for her — and for Jews and Germans too. Can the past be recovered, reconstructed? Or do we have an obligation to make something new?
Nelly’s yearning for her old face is mirrored in her desire to track down the remnants of her former life — in particular, her ex-husband and former accompanist, Johnny, a gentile who, we learn, divorced her just before she was denounced to the authorities. (The film holds out the possibility that he was the one who betrayed her.) To the dismay of her close friend Lene, a survivor who insists that their future lies in Israel — she represents the obligation to make something new — Nelly, now calling herself Esther, locates Johnny. He goes by Johannes these days, and is working as a busboy and pimp at a club called the Phoenix. Here the seeds that Petzold and his cowriter, Harun Farocki, sowed early on begin to germinate. Struck by Esther’s resemblance to Nelly, whom he believes is dead, Johnny asks her to pose as his ex-wife as part of a scam to take possession of her large inheritance. In her pathetic desire to hold on to her past, Nelly acquiesces, even as the evidence of Johnny’s guilt accumulates.
As in Tarantino’s Basterds, there’s no shortage of referential wit in Phoenix. The camerawork has the chiaroscuro seediness of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), and for his plot Petzold mines everything from Dark Passage, a 1947 Humphrey Bogart noir about a wrongly accused convict who escapes from prison and undergoes plastic surgery in order to track down his wife’s real killer, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). (In his squalid basement apartment, a jittery Johnny fusses at Esther for not walking the way Nelly walked, and for not wearing her clothes and shoes the way she had.) The knowing allusions to such films extend to their sometimes gaping plot holes: Johnny seems neither to notice nor to care that Esther forges Nelly’s handwriting perfectly on her first try.
The movie’s elaborate play with reality and illusion, authenticity and performance, reaches a suggestive climax when Johnny stages Nelly’s “return” to Berlin for the benefit of a group of clueless friends, the better to further his con. But at the party to celebrate the occasion, her performance of “Speak Low” reveals to Johnny who Esther really is. An early scene has established the song as a symbol for the pervasive identity confusion that haunts the characters. When Nelly asks Lene to play a recording of “Speak Low,” she happily obliges since, she says, she “can’t stand German songs anymore”; the joke is that the jazz standard was cowritten by Kurt Weill, that quintessentially German composer.
And so the performance of an artwork becomes the path to the truth. But as Petzold’s film slinks toward this metaconclusion, all the artistry — the ingenious allusiveness and the Russian-doll plotting — finally upstages whatever larger point he wanted to make about history and identity, Germans and Jews. One question that Petzold doesn’t seem to have asked himself is whether a Jewish survivor’s story should serve as a cinematic metaphor for German historical consciousness in the first place.
Early in Phoenix, Nelly asks the surgeon to explain why her desire for facial reconstruction is a bad idea as compared with what Lene, a bit later, refers to as re-creation. These are the film’s key terms for the choices — historical, moral, and ethical — that face the individuals and the nations in these two Holocaust movies. And yet it’s also a choice for filmmakers. Ricciarelli has opted for reconstruction; Petzold, for re-creation. It isn’t clear, though, that Petzold knows why. In the end, he reminds you of no one so much as Nelly’s surgeon: lost in the labyrinth of his own cleverness, he’s too beguiled by his technical prowess to grapple with the deeper meaning of what he’s doing. “You’ll be a new and different person,” the surgeon reassures Nelly. “You won’t be identifiable, which means . . .” But he doesn’t finish his sentence. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, her question remains unanswered.