Sunday, January 25, 2015

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002)

In the winter of 1942, a young impressionable face came into the inner sphere of Adolf Hitler with simple aspirations of steady employment. Her name was Traudl Junge, and at age 22 all her worldly concerns came down to basic security, especially as Germany came under the rule of a regime that sought to, from an inside perspective, enhance the national workforce. A co-worker at the Chancellery had heard that the Fuhrer was seeking a private secretary and suggested that she apply for the position, and after excelling at a typing test she was whisked away into the wilderness along with a small cluster of other female applicants, where Hitler was privately obsessing over military orders in one of his many bunkers. She had never seen the dictator outside of political rallies or propaganda news reels, but at the center of her line of sight she discovered a courteous and mannered personality – far from the fiery oratorical genius that the public saw so regularly. In many ways, that was just as dangerous as it was disarming; Junge was the oldest child in a family without a male parental figure, and to her his almost fatherly sense of delicacy with the applicants was a refreshing quality, an aspect that seemed to fill a quiet void in her to be coddled like an affectionate child. It never dawned on her through the course of her employment that her boss led a life of dubious distinction, nor did she come to realize the depth of the atrocities he committed until long after the flames of war had dissipated.

Junge’s end-of-life confessions are yet another story of alarming depth that have come to light in the decades since the end of World War II, and in “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary,” two filmmakers spend hours upon hours with the her in order to understand the core question of her experience: how was it possible to be so close to a madman for so long without ever knowing what kind of nightmares he unleashed on the free world? Their drive is emboldened by the depth of this kind woman’s brutal honesty – with details, with perspective and (most importantly) with eyewitness testimony of her employer’s manipulative persona. There isn’t a moment in her waking life where she does not look back on those years with shame and regret, and in nearly all of the immense footage shot of her recounting her experiences, the details are interlaced with brooding editorial slants, all of which suggest that she was not so much a victim of clever manipulation as she was an ignorant girl who refused to see the truth. “The Germans are good at organizing,” she informs the camera, and with that inclination she holds an entire populace accountable for their own lack of foresight in what was occurring all around them. If there was indeed a “blind spot” that allowed people like her to completely miss the horrors that Hitler committed against humanity, then she is but one of millions of followers who was caught in that terrible vacuum.

Hitler’s brilliance in manipulating an entire nation into that conundrum is well-known and indisputable, but of course it is – the overwrought anti-Semitism that ultimately led to the death of millions of European Jews was allowed to fester six years with him in power before World War II came to fruition, and that sentiment ran unchecked until the war ended in the spring of 1945. In the age of information, where knowledge of events in the world spreads without restriction, it is unfathomable that so much death and atrocity could transpire under the unwatchful noses of major political powers, especially in the epicenter of first-world nations. When we hear the term “genocide” now, our minds often travel to the ongoing tragedies occurring in African nations and how imprudent major world powers are in addressing them in a timely manner. Their failures only go to add vexation in our awareness of Nazi Germany, because to be at the core of mainstream political power and be allowed to lay waste to a generation of people almost completely unchecked is as equal a statement on our inability to react as it is on the evil of one man in his warped ideology.

Junge spent some fifty odd years in secret with these realizations, plagued by the memory of a time that seemed innocent and good-natured until the reality of Hitler’s “Final Solution” was unearthed after his demise. A few years prior to these critical interviews, she revealed all those details in one of the most honest memoirs of its time: “Voices from the Bunker,” which dealt primarily with her first-hand accounts of her last ten days with the Fuhrer prior to Berlin’s fall. Just as it was in the writings, so is it in these face-to-face discussions: this was a woman who lived under an elaborate ruse that cut her off from essential knowledge, and like the millions of German civilians of that time, natural curiosity was stifled by one man’s effortless ability to convey optimism and promise under the mask of charisma. Her sentiments were not solitary, either; nearly all personal records from those associated with Hitler’s inner circle spoke of a quiet and shy man with singular persuasion over others, who in close quarters would treat you with the greatest of dignity and then would excuse himself into a military chamber to bark orders over missed takeovers.

Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, who made this deadpan documentary, do not bother themselves with side interjections or archival footage; all 87 minutes of their film consists simply of interviews with this woman, with no inclination to stage it beyond the words acting as reveals of insightful new information. It barely feels like a film; the camera sits idly by while simple questions are asked in Traudl’s presence, and she conducts her answers in the framework of an invaluable witness to the makings of historical catastrophe (even without the awareness). The picture’s only genuine artistic choice is almost subtle enough to miss; in one set of interviews, Junge is shown footage of one of her prior conversations with the directors as a way to remind her of initial observations. What inspires them to go this route? To get to the nature of the agenda, it is wise to show her the footage; this approach gives her an opportunity to add further context to some of her stories in between takes, and her attentive expressions anchor the sentiment that she is, in fact, ashamed of her entire involvement in the German’ dictator’s final years. Here was a woman who spent a remarkable 28 months in the company of this man, and never once thought to ask what war her leader was fighting or what the entire agenda consisted of; she simply did her job with silent acceptance. In this case, hindsight only inspired the deepest level of self-loathing.

The points she makes are invites to lean forward in earnest curiosity. Traudl speaks not only of her first meeting with a shy and unassuming Hitler, but also of incidents that dot the way – including a discussion she observes in regards to his dismissal of bomb threats in his Berlin bunker (which provide eerie foreshadowing), and even anecdotes of his experiences with Blondi, his loyal German Shepherd who served as his primary companion until the very end (he later poisoned the dog to ensure the effectiveness of cyanide capsules). The most valuable of the material is, of course, her eyewitness accounts of Hitler’s final days; being one of the last people to see him alive (and one of the last who remained present in his bunker before Russian forces overtook Berlin), her testimonies are enlightening in the sense of revealing the unending dedication of his close followers – ranging from herself to other secretaries, to army generals and to the Goebbels family, all of whom gathered to spend the end of the war with “Uncle Adolf” before joining him in death like members of a sacrificial cult. Her perseverance in life following the dismantling of the Third Reich is miraculous – especially considering she had been imprisoned as a possible conspirator, first by the Russians and then by the Americans – and there is no doubt in the irony that the very same quality that made her ignorant of details may have, in fact, been the only thing that allowed her to live on and share these stories.

If any of these testimonies sound familiar, it’s because they were all dramatized in a small film called “Downfall,” which is framed on Traudl’s stories of the end of the war in Berlin (perhaps appropriately, it also begins and ends with footage of these interviews as a way to anchor the abrasive tone). That movie considers the stories of other sources too, and for brilliant effect; I consider it one of the great films of the 21st century. Others do not share in that enthusiasm, and indeed it lives on with some level of notoriety because some continue to dismiss the idea that a film could humanize the figure of Hitler or dramatize his terror. While I challenge that perception wholeheartedly, I also see the need for fact-finders and counterpoints, especially in the world of documentary filmmaking. “Blind Spot” occupies that sentiment, and lacks all indications of cinematic sensation. It’s a movie impossible to judge on any level of merit other than as straight information. But that’s exactly what the filmmakers set out to do, and in that respect are unflinching in arriving at this point in Traudl’s sad story of regret and inner hatred. Towards the end, there is a moment before her death where she tells the directors, off-screen, that she thinks she is finally beginning to forgive herself. On the path to claiming redemption for one’s sins, how remarkable it is to consider that a woman so close to such an evil man could have such a thoughtful conscience in her own final days.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Documentary (Germany); 2002; Rated PG for thematic elements; Running Time: 90 Minutes

Traudl Junge

Produced by
Danny Krausz and Kurt StockerDirected and written by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer

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