On the Horizon: The Decent German: Film Portrait
On the Horizon, devoted to comment on cultural and social events and trends, presents this month an analysis by Siegfried Kracauer of a postwar German film, Marriage in the Shadows, which reveals disturbing facts about the present state of the German mind; and a report by Heinz Politzer on the interaction of American, East European, and Israeli culture in New York’s Yiddish Theater. Dr. Kracauer is the author of From Caligari to Hitler, a psychological history of the German cinema. Dr. Politzer, now teaching at Bryn Mawr, has been a frequent contributor to these pages; his article is translated by F. C. Golffing.
Within the last few months, several German postwar films have come to us from the Soviet zone of occupation. One of these, Marriage in the Shadows, though not precisely a work of art, at least represents a serious attempt at self-scrutiny. It is, moreover, a film essentially German in technique and outlook; though it was made under Russian auspices, there is no significant evidence of Russian influence to be found in it. It offers, therefore, certain indications of the present state of the German mentality.
This is all the more useful because current reports from Germany, concerned with day-to-day politics rather than deeper currents, do not give a coherent picture of what is going on in the minds of the Germans.
On the one hand, they very optimistically speak of a turn to the better, with democratic thought gaining strength; on the other, they record facts which give about the reverse impression;—all too often, apparently, objective estimates are watered down by wishful thinking and moral preachment.
To be sure, the psychological meaning of a film is not always to be found on its sur-face. Hollywood films, for instance, have been criticized for misleading people abroad into believing that America is a paradise for gangsters, a country where money means everything and acts of unbridled violence alternate with scenes effusively sentimental. These films, it has been remarked, distort American life. No doubt they do, if they are taken at face value. Yet there is a sense in which Hollywood films—the films of all nations, for that matter—reflect a deeper reality: often they reveal less obvious motivations and behavior patterns which in one way or another do correspond to actually existing mass tendencies. In an earlier article in COMMENTARY (“Hollywood’s Terror Films,” August 1946), the writer tried to show that those screen pageants of horror and sadism which flourished immediately after the war had a distinct bearing on the mental climate of the time. Similarly, it is not difficult, at least in retrospect, to realize that there was a close relation between such a film as Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and the era of the New Deal. Or, to take a more recent example, the Italian film Paisan, a blend of political inertia and stirring humanity, clearly reveals its origin in the psychological climate of a nation that has seen many ideas come and go, invariably entailing war and misery, and is now suspicious of all ideas and all politics.
Covering the period from 1933 to 1943, Marriage in the Shadows tells the story, said to be based on real-life events, of a popular Berlin actor and his Jewish wife, herself a prominent actress. The story begins with her enforced retreat from the stage, drags on in an atmosphere of gloom and ever-growing despair, and ends with the actor poisoning himself and his wife to spare her the horrors of imminent deportation. But this is only the nucleus of a plot which clearly aims at driving home the impact of Nazi anti-Semitism on all those liberal-minded Gentiles and Jews who in happier days unhesitatingly mingled with each other. Marriage in the Shadows is a chronicle of the German middle class under Hitler.
We seem to learn only what we never doubted—that decency did not die out when the Nazis took over. Wieland, the actor, refuses indignantly to divorce his Elisabeth; and neither of them would dream of deserting their Jewish friend Kurt, who chooses to emigrate after the Reichstag fire but reappears in Berlin ten years later, a fugitive from a concentration camp. Similarly, the old Jewish doctor Silbermann is not entirely wrong in relying on the loyalty of his “Aryan” patients: some of them, at least, are prepared to risk their lives to shelter him as the terror reaches its peak. Silbermann is a sort of Biblical figure, a second Nathan the Wise. What an abrupt change—slightly embarrassing for being so abrupt—from the Nazi-contrived “Jew Suess” to this paragon of mellow sweetness!
Nor did we ever doubt that many were less dependable. The film offers a variety of samples, ranging from meek compliance to spiteful malignity. The publisher Dr. Blohm, Elisabeth’s fiancé in pre-Hitler days, is particularly interesting because he illustrates the typical self-justifications of the weak social climber. No sooner does Hitler win out than the handsome Dr. Blohm solves the conflict between love and career by exchanging his place in Elisabeth’s heart for a job in the propaganda ministry and posing before her and himself as an idealist. Beneath his pretenses to culture and goodness there extends a bottomless swamp. As one of Goebbels’ henchmen he first protects Elisabeth from the Gestapo to soothe his conscience and eventually betrays her to save his skin. The swamp engulfs him.
We knew all this. Yet in confirming it Marriage in the Shadows adds a touch of first-hand experience and valuable detail. The pictorial account of the anti-Jewish mob riots in 1938 reconstructs that organized fury with convincing accuracy; and many a conversation about topical issues sounds like a transcript from minutes. The film’s specific merit is its honesty, which sometimes produces effects far more impressive than the glamor of Hollywood: a gay pastoral scene sandwiched between two episodes of anguish illuminates the nightmarish character of a universe in which sublime art neighbors on crude terror; and I do not recall any suicide on the screen that can match the film’s concluding sequence with its drawn—out silences and its finality.
There the matter might rest, were it not for the attitudes one senses behind the film—attitudes that should alarm those concerned with German “re-education.”
Steeped in purely personal moral distinctions, Marriage in the Shadows condemns the “bad” Germans who surrendered to Hitler, while praising the “good” ones who did not. No doubt these latter are deserving of praise; yet they talk and act in a way which, to say the least, has a strangely pathetic quality. What is wrong with them? Their whole conduct illustrates the simple truth that decency comes into its own only if it is acted out on the political scene as well as in private life. And it cannot fully be acted out unless the decent people are guided by concepts which make them grasp the significance of politics, the close interrelation of private and public morals.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the political immaturity of Marriage in the Shadows. By applying the yardstick of individual ethics indiscriminately to all human affairs, the film precludes any understanding of Hitler’s hold on the mass mind. The Nazis—SS-men, Gestapo agents, top officials, and the like—are represented simply as conquerors who, for reasons left unexplained, have managed to seize control, attracting the weak, the mean, and the vicious. This is how they appear to Elisabeth and her friends, and the treatment of them on the screen constantly deepens the impression that they are an alien race unconnected with the rest of the people—as if the Germans, like the French, were the victims of an invasion. Need it be said that such an approach is inadequate? Before 1933 as well as later, many middle-class Germans, upset by the vast unemployment, the irreconcilable antagonism of Left and Right, and the sterility of a system which the Nazis had done so much to undermine, in all sincerity saw Hitler as a savior; the very idea of an omnipotent Fuehrer appealed to their traditional authoritarian leanings. Hitler came from within. And it is absurd to pass off the bulk of his followers among the educated as simple opportunists or hypocrites.
In Marriage in the Shadows decency unfolds at the expense of adult political judgment. This shows most glaringly in the film-makers’ tendency to deprecate Jewish emigration. To be sure, Kurt, more sensitive than the others, leaves Berlin for Vienna; and Elisabeth might have left also, had not emotion overcome her reason. But the overwhelming sympathies lie with those who bear the brunt at home. Instead of sending Elisabeth away to safety, her husband implores her to stay with him in Germany and in general looks down upon emigrants. “Maybe it won’t be so bad,” says Dr. Silbermann in the early days of the regime, “but should things turn worse, I would think even less of going abroad.” And as if to emphasize his courage, two Jews shown in his waiting room absorbed in discussing foreign visas are characterized as pitiable, inferior creatures.
The film thus tends to cast Jewish emigrants almost in the role of deserters. But to what do they owe allegiance? And why does Elisabeth not try to argue the situation out with her husband? For all their personal integrity, the Jewish characters act out of an emotional idealism much cultivated in Germany—an idealism which holds reason in contempt and prides itself on never asking questions. In this film, its most striking result is a double suicide of no consequence; as if to emphasize the essentially unrealistic character of the suicide, it is made to parallel the final scene of a stageplay that Hans and Elisabeth are shown acting when the film opens—thus supplying a framework more significant than the filmmakers may have intended.
Products of a thoroughgoing effort at assimilation, the good Jews of the film resemble the good Germans in combining high sentiments with poor judgment. They take their plight for granted; the existence of other possibilities and another world—Palestine, for example—seems unknown to them.
Jews or Gentiles, these decent middleclass Germans are incapable even of an attempt to translate their decency into action. They repeatedly accuse themselves, it is true, of not having entered the arena as fighters; but these rare bits of insight turn out to be merely rhetorical protestations leading nowhere. For the rest, Marriage in the Shadows strictly avoids facing up to the facts. The Jewish characters die by their own hands or succeed in escaping; their fear of deportation is never borne out by a scene evoking the ultimate consequence of deportation. Nor does the film mention political activities against the Nazis. It remains unclear, for instance, whether the people who shelter Silbermann are underground fighters or not. Silbermann himself, being of a saintly nature, is politically a blank. The same holds true of Elisabeth and the others, with perhaps the one exception of Kurt, who at least is dimly aware of the impact of Hitlerism.
Politics for these people is nothing but a hateful intrusion into their emotional and cultural privacy. One episode intimates that Wieland, in the interest of his career as an actor, might readily make his peace with the Nazis were it not for his personal moral obligation to Elisabeth. Elisabeth herself communes with the elements at a North Sea beach while the clouds gather over Berlin, and in a despondent mood seeks comfort in Goethe’s letters. She and her friends are so exclusively concerned with their private lives that they see public life as something that remains outside their reach; they are thus completely at a loss when political or social events lay claim to their common sense rather than their familiarity with Goethe. They know only that they should do something about the situation; but when it comes to it they are stunned into passivity.
The film fails to show any real awareness of these shortcomings. Here a side-glance at Paisan is rewarding. The monks in the monastery episode of Paisan match Silbermann in both saintliness and ignorance; but precisely because of these qualities they are portrayed with a subtle irony which quietly points up the limitations of their outlook. No such irony is used in the presentation of Silbermann, Elisabeth, and Wieland. Occasionally, it is true, these characters indulge in an optimism which is regularly discredited by the facts; yet even this emphasis on their self-deception is handled in such a way that it becomes not a criticism of their political ineptitude but only another means of arousing compassion for their tragic helplessness.
If Marriage in the Shadows reflects an actually existing state of mind, as I believe it does, then the unmodulated sympathy with which it surrounds its “good” characters would indicate that German middleclass mentality has not really changed. Through its one-sided emphasis on issues of personal morality, this film brings the problem of German re-education into sharp focus. For that problem does not bear on individual ethics, as many still incline to believe; rather, it bears on certain basic concepts which, common to “bad” Germans and “good” Germans alike, are responsible for their political inhibitions. What is wrong with the majority of Germans is the way they conceive of authority, of the role of reason, of the interrelation between culture and civilization. Any effective mobilization of German decency must depend on a change in habits of thought that are centuries old.
Our correspondents in Germany report an ever-increasing rehabilitation of former Nazis and a mounting wave of anti-Semitism. One fears that the decent Germans of today may again let the evil grow without penetrating and resisting it, and may again be caught in the maelstrom with nothing left intact but their precious decency. The suicide that ends this film is the ultimate response of which a purely personal morality is capable.