As recent films prove, Holocaust still on the German mind

los angeles | Sixty-seven years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi-organized mobs burned and looted thousands of German synagogues and Jewish stores during Kristallnacht, the opening salvo of the Holocaust.

How are the grandchildren of the perpetrators dealing with this legacy? Four recent German movies show that far from forgetting its nation’s past, today’s generation is still wrestling with it, at times obsessively.

The Germans have a word, of course multisyllabic, for this internal struggle. It’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, literally mastering the past, but better understood as “coming to terms with the past.”

The four films themselves can be divided into three categories, or three ways of wrestling with the Nazi legacy: As a documentary on the past evil. As two movies celebrating “good” Germans who resisted. And through one idiosyncratic comedy that carries the hope that Germans and Jews are beginning to see each other as just normal neighbors, without guilt or rancor.

“The Goebbels Experiment,” which played in the Bay Area recently, is the least artful and most depressing film of the lot, but it casts a hypnotic spell.

Joseph Goebbels was the brilliant propaganda minister — Reich liar-general — of the Nazi regime, and he kept voluminous diaries throughout his life.

What the film does is to let Goebbels speak for 107 minutes, via the English narration of actor-director Kenneth Branagh, while illustrating the words with appropriate news clips.

“Before the Fall” helps answer the question of why Nazi youngsters fought fanatically to the end when it was clear that the war was lost — and what happened to the few who dissented.

The setting is an elite napola, a political institute where promising teenagers trained to become the future Nazi governors of Moscow and London. Graduation from a napola guaranteed a bright future career and this prospect lures 16-year-old Friedrich. He fits right in until he befriends Albrecht, who, as an unathletic, sensitive bookworm, is obviously out of place. Albrecht is there because his father, the regional Nazi governor, has the pull to force his son into the elite school.

But when Albrecht protests the massacre of unarmed Soviet prisoners of war in the nearby woods, the story turns tragic. Friedrich stands up for his disgraced friend and is expelled.

Carrying the point much further that there were some Germans who refused to fall into line is “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.”

Scholl, a belated heroine in postwar Germany, was a 21-year-old university student in Munich, who with her brother and some friends, organized the resistance group called the White Rose.

In 1943, while surreptitiously stashing anti-Nazi leaflets at the university, she was caught, put through a show trial and beheaded by a guillotine.

In a category of its own stands “Go for Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy,” which swept Germany’s top cinema awards this year as a surprise hit. “Zucker” played at this year’s San Francisco International Jewish Film Festival.

This is a film that gets its laughs and warmth by showing what happens when a completely secular and assimilated Jew has to host a fervently religious one.

A similar plotline drives the current Israeli hit “Ushpizin,” with the difference that while the one is set in Jerusalem, the other takes place in contemporary Berlin.

In “Zucker” middle-aged Jaeckie Zucker (formerly Jacob Zuckerman) ekes out a precarious existence as a pool shark and gambler. Raised in Communist East Berlin while his mother and brother fled to West Berlin, Jaeckie left the Jewish “club” a long time ago and is used to living on his wits, such as they are.

His fortunes look up when he hears that his mother has died, leaving a sizeable estate. The catch is that as a condition of the inheritance he must reconcile with his long-estranged brother Samuel, a fervently religious real estate tycoon from Frankfurt.

Director Dani Levy, a Swiss-born Jew whose parents had fled Berlin, thinks that “Zucker” has helped defuse some of the tensions.

“Jews have always been able to laugh at themselves and here is a movie in which Germans can laugh with the Jews, not at them,” he said. “If we laugh with other people, that’s a sign that you like them. That’s the best way to win people over and cross borders.”

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent