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April 21, 2005

Video Virgil: The Wansee Conference

In my last entry I judged "Downfall" to be a superior film on the strength of one character, Magda, the stern wife of Josef Goebbels. Of all the characters in the film, she is the one who conveys the difference between ordinary and extraordinary evil.

Where did I get this standard? From "The Wansee Conference," a 1984 German TV film broadcast on PBS in 1989. (It is not available on DVD but can be rented or bought on VHS.) Based on the research of a Prussian-born Israeli, Manfred Korytowski, this German-Austrian coproduction recreates in real time (85 minutes) the clandestine 1942 meeting that set in motion the last phase of the "final solution." The script is taken directly from the notes of that meeting, and there is no music or other add-ons. Just brilliant acting and direction.

Present at the Wansee Conference were the top brass of the Party and SS, assorted military men and bureaucrats, a note-taking stenographer (the lone woman), and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the security police and golden boy predicted to succeed Hitler. Like Magda, Heydrich (played by Dietrich Mattausch) is not an icy robot or a snarling wolf but something worse: an elegant, arrogant human being with a silver tongue and a winning sense of irony about the difficult task ahead.

For example, at one point Heydrich indicates on a map how the remnants of European Jewry are still "scattered all over like fly-specks." Just back from heading the "murder battalions" that killed more than a million Jews in occupied Soviet territory, Heydrich informs Rudolf Lange, the Gestapo chief for the Eastern Territories, that he will soon be receiving more "shipments from the Reich."

When Heydrich first arrived, Lange greeted him a heel-clicking report, "Estonia, Jew-free!" But now we see Lange's hands trembling at the news. "We didn't really plan on starting up again," he protests feebly. Richly amused, Heydrich orders cognac and starts to flirt with the stenographer.

Do not for a moment confuse this film with the HBO film "Conspiracy" (2001) starring Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich. "Conspiracy" is standard Nazi-movie fare, with a bunch of English actors looking severe and repressed, like a public school headmaster about to cane some boy's bottom.

"The Wansee Conference" is different. The actors speak German, for one thing. But more important, they remind us that the Holocaust was not designed by cartoon bad guys but by proud, intelligent human beings at the peak of their capacities - including the capacity for evil.

Posted by at April 21, 2005 4:30 AM

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