Hollywood has dreamed up some dastardly baddies over the years. But since the Second World War, not even Darth Vader or the Wicked Witch of the West has provided a more reliable source of “boo hiss” than real-life Nazis.
For 70 years, the war-film genre has been a straightforward struggle between good and bad – the heroic Allies versus the demonic Nazis. The Third Reich is an instant means to shock and scare.
It’s less problematic for popcorn-munching audiences to tar all war-time Germans with the same brush – from high-ranking officers to ordinary Deutschers. All were complicit. All were guilty. In terms of creating a simple plot, this all makes perfect sense. Hollywood thrives on good versus evil. It makes a good story.
But something’s happened of late in the film industry that suggests the issue of collective German guilt is no longer so black-and-white. Last week’s cinema release of The Book Thief is the latest in a new genre that shows the war from a German point of view.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) was among the first to take a nuanced view, looking at the horror of the Holocaust through the eyes of a concentration camp commandant’s son. Then The Reader (2008) trod the muddy moral waters of a female SS guard’s war-crimes trial. It proved a goose-step too far for many – especially in the Jewish community – who found the portrayal of a Nazi as a sympathetic character deeply troubling.
Then Lore (2012) followed the children of a Nazi officer as they travelled across post-war Germany after their father’s arrest. The Book Thief continues the theme, looking at Kristallnacht, book burning and the Hitler Youth from the perspective of a nine-year-old Aryan orphan.
Individually, these films might seem exceptions to the black-and-white rule. Together, they feel like a new shade of grey. They cold be seen as a watershed moment in our ability to recognise – even empathise – with victims on both sides. To hear the German point of view.
Of course a great many people, for good reason, simply aren’t ready or willing to hear it. For them there can be no ambiguity because the entire German nation was to blame, to a degree, for the Holocaust. At worst, they were complicit in the crime; at best, they were bystanders who allowed blind hatred to turn into unparalleled genocide. They were all, to use author Daniel Goldhagen’s famous phrase, Hitler’s willing executioners.
This painful reckoning with the past is something for subsequent generations to grapple with more dispassionately. It may take another 70 years to settle on a more balanced and accurate assessment of the Second World War.
That Hitler was everyone’s tragedy.
The Book Thief cinema trailer: