on December 28, 2002
This 1984 German film gave me the chills. It's a dramatization of a scene that actually occurred on January 20, 1942, when the key representatives of the SS, the Nazi Party and various ministries met in the German suburb of Wannsee to give their approval of "the final solution". It was just one month after Pearl Harbor and America had entered the war, and the Third Reich was no longer quite as confident as they once were as Russia and England were vigorously resisting. The conference took only 85 minutes, which is the precise time of the film. I watched it all in horror and fascination, a fly on the wall and witness to what they was spoken of as an "organizational task unparalleled in history."
There were fourteen men there and one stenographer, an attractive woman who the leader flirted with throughout. Her notes of that day were later discovered in Nazi archives and much of the dialog was recreated verbatim. It all seemed like a business meeting, complete with one-upmanship and power struggles between the men. They ate fine food and drank cognac, made crude jokes and clashed with one another on minor issues. But they were all united in wanting the Jews, which by this time included Jews in all their conquered territories, exterminated.
Adolph Eichman is portrayed as a junior officer in charge of the complicated logistics of the operation. And the meeting is being held to engage the participants in a shared responsibility for it all, the result being pre-determined by higher officials, which nobody was about to question. The only exception is a middle-aged minor official from an interior ministry with a bad case of the flu, who brings up the issue of what to do with half-Jews and quibbles about their degree of racial purity.
Although the film shows only uniformed officers around a dinner table, I couldn't help my mind's eye from remembering other horrific newscast images. The cast spoke German and the subtitles were hard to read, as they didn't show up well against the color background. But it was more than the actual words that were important. It was the gestures, the silences, the facial expressions - and of course the very sound of the German language - that made it all real, much too real. There was a glimpse of the discipline and formality of the moment, as well as the crudeness of the men who were all intent on seizing Jewish property and who made jokes about how the Jews who had escaped to France had nothing more of value than cardboard suitcases.
This was a fine film, recapturing a horrible moment in history. It's so well done that it seems real, and that makes it extremely uncomfortable to watch. As a matter of fact, I was so disturbed that I actually thought of turning it off and not watching it all the way though. But I was hooked on the excellent acting, fine screenplay and great camerawork that focused on one man's face after another. I therefore give it an extremely high recommendation although it is not for the faint of heart.
on June 17, 2004
This Reenactment of the Wansee Conference is a must see for the serious historian and the interested student alike. The German spoken is flawless and evokes the mood and attitude of those present at the conference. If you have ever been to the Wansee area, outside Berlin, it is beautiful there. They chose a setting like this to lay down the plans (actually already in motion) for the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question". To hear the candid anti-semitic speech, and the way the Nazis refer to the Polish and other groups in such cold, stark terms is an eye opener. The mood is like that of a business meeting as they discuss the efficient elimination of European Jews. The euphamistic terms that they use, such as "evacuation to the east", show how they skirt the issue without skirting it. The main purpose of this SS organized meeting is to share responsibility with the Government officials present. World conquest is spoken of as if it is inevitable. The arrogance of Reinhard Heydrich is sobering.
The more recent film "Conspiracy" is also a reenactment of this meeting, but to hear it in the original language and tone of German speech and mannerism is a bonus. Hopefully this one will be on DVD in the next few years.
on November 17, 2002
The reviews below by Dr. Victor S. Alpher and Daniel J. Hamlow are really excellent and there's little that I can add to them. You might also want to look at the shorter reviews by Arthur F. McVarish, "the_sanity_inspector," and Lawrance M. Bernabo, all of whom make excellent points.
What I want to do here (besides point you to those reviews) is to note that The Wannsee Conference is a German language film with white English subtitles. Sometimes the subtitles are superimposed over a white background and the words disappear. That is why state of the art subtitles are yellow so that they don't get lost in the background. Otherwise the subtitles are very good, translating what needs to be translated and ignoring the extraneous.
I also want to note that the somewhat miraculous script by Paul Mommertz is very much like a stage play with most of the action essentially confined to one set with the various players delivering their lines as the camera focuses on them, much as a spotlight might. I say "miraculous" because Mommertz forged his screenplay from the banal, bureaucratic and often euphemistic language used by the historical Nazis as they formulated the so-called "Final Solution." How to make such material dramatic was the problem Mommertz and Director Heinz Schirk faced. They achieved the nearly impossible through the subtle use of what I might call everyday "reality intrusions": the dog barking, the vainglorious Reinhard Heydrich tripping over a briefcase as he is posturing as the grand architect and fuhrer of the Holocaust, the stenographer flirting (and Heydrich's calculated, chilling affirmative response), the greedy drinking, the "Nazi rally" thumping of the table, the turf wars, the boorish jokes, etc. These served to highlight by contrast the horror that these men were so bureaucratically entertaining. Note too that when the stenographer asks if a verbatim report is desired, she is told that a detailed report will suffice. Thus the dumb brute reality could be edited later in a George Orwellian manner to further bureaucratize and euphemize what they were doing.
What a truly verbatim report might have revealed is the point of this film.
This is a work of art, and I want to say that real art, to the extent that it is didactic, fails. If the artist tries to teach a lesson or show us the way and the light through a human story, to that extent he or she loses control and becomes an advertiser, a propagandist, a preacher. We as audience or readers become not participants anymore but objects. A work of art is always a two-way street of participation between the artist and those viewing the art. We might agree with the message or we might not, but we are no longer equal participants in the experience.
Yet what a work of art does is demonstrate a human truth through form. It is almost always an emotional truth. The Greeks emphasized tragedy because they understood the cathartic emotional experience that tragedy brings. What Mommertz and Schirk have done is present the truth as best they could discover it, and then they ran the closing credits. What we as audience experience depends on how well we participated, and what we brought as human beings to the experience. How well we concentrate, how aware we are of what is going on, how alert--these too are important. The Swannsee Conference is a demanding film, but it is surprising how quickly it moves, how engaged we become. The tension is not in what will happen at the end, of course. Instead the tension is in how it happens. We are held in thrall of discovering the essential nature of this most horrific and incredible evil done by the Nazis. And what we find out is that it was above all else banal and bureaucratic.
This is its essence: the dehumanization of the objects upon which the evil is worked. It can be done no other way. It has been said that for good men to do evil it takes religious commitment. For ordinary men it is necessary to dehumanize. When Stuckart complains that women and children are being killed, he is told, "Women and children are Jews too."
on August 18, 2002
If you're reading this review, you've possibly also seen and reviewed a vastly differt version of the same event, "Conspiracy" (HBO, with Kenneth Branagh and the ever threatening Stanley Tucci, with light brown hair!). My purpose is not to compare or contrast them--they are both good in their own right for a variety of reasons.
This version is essential to any student of the War, the Holocaust, German history, BECAUSE it was made in Germany just before the advent of Glasnost. My own study of German history suggests that the "Final Solution" (Endloesung) of the "Jewish Question" was really a sad, confusing, and irrational approach toward dealing with partisan warfare, counter-espionage, and the search for a "higher" reason for the war than finding more German "living space" (Lebensraum). These men were looking for some "accomplishment" to look to, even if the war were lost (it was January 20, 1942--AND there were two MORE "Final Solution" conferences to follow (see Richard Overy, "Interrogations"). Ridding Europe of Jewish, and therefore Bolshevik/Communist influences, seemed like a reasonable parallel "war."
The reason these movies differ, of course, is because there is no verbatim transcript. ONE version of the minutes survives, and can be read in its entirety in German or English with a simple web search. Upon this, a dramatic version emerges and is dependent up the interpretation of actual historical figures, some well known (Stuckart), some little known until recently (Heinrich Mueller, SS-Gruppenfuehrer for internal Reich Police matters [see any of Gregory Douglas' works on him]).
What especially succeeds here is that this production, in its context, emerged at a time of undoubted fears that the Soviets would eventually relase information about the Reich and its activities hertofore unknown outside the NKVD, MVD and ultimately KGB. Sadly, many of the early Bolsheviks were also Jews (by Halakah, not by German racial laws, which were quite convoluted), and the two-century of assimilation of Jews into German society had NOT taken place in Russia and the USSR (see Rigg's new "Hitler's Jewish Soldiers" to understand the complex identity issues involved). Marxists and Communists happened to have Jewish ancestry (not all, of course), but enough to parallel the current question about our profiling or not profiling persons of obvious Middle Eastern descent or origin as possible security risks. To paraphrase the old saw, those who do not study and understand history are condemned to repeat it. The German version is more chilling, less burdened with poor costuming and fake snow. Also, the novelty of the German actors to Americans helps keep the focus on the issues, the humanity and lack thereof, and how any political system goes sour when politics is pursued "by other means." Be prepared to wonder where we may be headed, less than 60 years after the end of WWII (and with what appears to be the demise of assimilation here). Further, in light of VERY current events--can any such depiction (including the film "Hart's War") succeed while purged of the presence of the tobacco economy and bartering?
on July 26, 2002
Opening narration: "On Tuesday, 20 January 1942, at a house in the quiet Berlin suburb, Wannsee, a meeting was held. At the invitation of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Security Police and Secret Service, fourteen key representatives of the Nazi Party, of the SS, and the government bureaucracy attended. The meeting lasted just ninety minutes. There was only one item on the agenda."
That item was implementation of the Endlosung, or Final Solution. Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and Heinrich Muller were there to tell the bureaucrats that they were taking charge of the Jewish problem in their spheres of authority, while at the same time making it look like they weren't encroaching on their authority but helping them with the problem of getting rid of their Jews.
Of the people in the film, only Eichmann, Heydrich, Muller, Lange, Freisler, and Schongarth are identified. For the benefit of those wanting to match faces to names, I have the following list. At the one head of the table is the stenographer. Going to her left, we have the representatives of the SS:
SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Adolf Eichmann, Reich Central Security Office, Dept. IV-B4
SS-Oberfuehrer Dr. Schongarth, General Government
SS-Gruppenfuehrer Heinrich Muller, RCSO, Dept. IV
Deputy Reichsprotector SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, RCSO
SS-Obergruppenfuehrer Hoffman, Central Office for Race and Resettlement)
SS-Oberfuehrer Klopfer, Party Chancellery
SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Dr. Lange, Commando Squad Latvia
At the opposite end of the table, we have Ministerialdirektor Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery. Going around his left, we have the bureaucrats:
Staatsekretar Neumann, Office of the Four Year Plan
Staatsekretar Dr. Roland Freisler, Ministry of Justice
Staatsekretar Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, Ministry of Interior
Gauleiter Dr. Meyer, East Ministry
Staatsekretar Dr. Josef Buhler, General Government
Unterstaatsekretar Luther, Foreign Office
Reichsamtleiter Dr. Leibrandt, East Ministry
This will be more apparent when watching the movie, but notice the people I listed first: all SS, on one side of the table, and then the bureaucrats on the other side. What better way for the SS to face and tell them they were taking charge? The first part of the movie has Heydrich declaring his final authority of the Endlosung to the astonished bureaucrats.
All the light humor involves Lange's dog. Of the dark humor: A disappointed Gauleiter Meyer says, "So the Eastern Provinces won't be the site of the Final Solution?" To which Heydrich replies, "Well, not everybody can reap the laurels, gentlemen."
The second part of the meeting involves the mischling (mixed race) question, in which Dr. Stuckart turns out to be more human. He is upset that the half-German/half-Jews are to be included in the Endlosung. There's also a personal side to it. "It's not news that I am called a Jew-lover in the Brown House. But repetition doesn't make it true," he says, referring to an ongoing feud between him and the rabid xenophobe Klopfer. Stuckart says that with every mischling killed, not only is the Jewish blood lost, so is the German blood. Leibrandt ridicules him, saying, "To a pessimist, the glass is half empty. To an optimist, the glass is half full. You are an optimist." Everyone then roars with laughter.
Stuckart correctly points out German's precarious situation: the Russian front, an undefeated England, American to come on the scene, and resistance movements springing up. In fact he's predicting Germany's defeat.
Forget the pitiful Conspiracy movie! Dietrich Mattausch portrays Reinhard Heydrich better than Kenneth Branagh, and Gerd Bockmann's Eichmann stands heads over Stanley Tucci. And Gunter Sporrle's Klopfer makes Ian McNiece's rendition pathetic. Equal praise goes to Peter Fitz as Stuckart and Harald Dietl as Meyer. Guess it shows how American remakes are inferior to the foreign original.
on August 8, 2001
If you didn't...or don't...know what THE WANNSEE Conference concerns (most youthful viewers won't), this film may drive you to distraction or flatly bore. It is...as some reviewers note...presentation of Hell's First Circle Bureaucracy planning the greatest criminal slaughter in recorded History. The architects of THE FINAL SOLUTION are presented as politically self-conscious Party hacks who have every intention of "getting-along" by "going-along". They reek of obsequiousness; and feeble efforts at dinner chatter/humor magnify complicity rather than obviate it. The exceptions are two principals: "Hangman" Heydrich, SS Reichsfuhrer; and his ruthlessly efficient disciple, Adolph Eichmann. These men...particularly Dietrcich Mattausch as Heydrich...revel in the glamour of Evil. The rest wallow in...what Hannah Arendt termed...its banality.
The film is approximately 85 minutes long, paralleling The Conference's averred length of 83. "Dinner is followed by DISCUSSION". There are no flashbacks/forwards or jump-cuts to real or imagined courses of action in the prospective ENDLOSUNG. One telephone conference...depicting Eichmann played with simmering threat by Gerd Boeckmann... starkly dramatizes the Reign of Terror WANNSEE portends. ( He rebukes an underling for allowing cattle-transport cars to be damaged-- bodies of dead Jews frozen to plank benches had to be torn/crow-barred off: ruining the benches!)
This intense, documentary film is neither entertaining nor "fascinating" because it's too real and SUCCESSFUL in its intention. Real NAZIs knew what they were doing and gloried in Will-to-Power and demonic self-homage. But what of the majority of der guten Leute?...The good People. THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE is like a TRIAL asking the viewer questions about himself, and daring him to answer......
on February 16, 2001
A gauleiter flirts with the stenographer. Reinhard Heydrich trips over Adolf Eichmann's briefcase. A Nazi chieftain has to keep going outside to shut up his barking dog. Little touches like those add to the creepiness of this reconstruction of the Final Solution conference. Of course, elimination of the Jews had been in full swing for some time before this conference--it seems mainly to have been held to get everyone to accept Heydrich's leadership of the project. But this conference is just about the only "paper trail" the Nazis left in the actual execution of their plans for the Holocaust.
The recreation of the conference is amazing. It isn't especially realistic--it's obvious that everyone is acting, because everyone is so crisp and "on". But the fine ensemble acting, taken for itself, is impressive. The pacing never drags, though you do have to pay attention. Everything is unnervingly ordinary--the applause for a toast to the soldiers on the Eastern Front, guffaws at someone's joke, Eichmann fussing over his papers of statistics. Even the sudden sound of a plucked piano string at the end is startling, as the viewer realizes the theretofore absence of a music track. A grim masterpiece of historical recovery.
on July 5, 2004
There was no reason to even consider making, "Conspiracy", as this film cannot be improvemed upon. The Mommertz screenplay is topnotch with all the SS hierarchy and bureaucraten having very believable lines in a setting that is just banal enough to ring completely true. The depcition of Heydrich is haunting and Eichmann appears to be the classic bicycle kicker as he is deferential to all superiors but abusive to his subordinates. With "Gestapo" Muller, the viewer immediately understands that his is a marginal talent as his demeanor and also his repetition of the word "elegant" five times in the course of the movie showcases. In this film, the good guys are merely the ones who are not 100% evil. It is a primer on human nature and an all around must see.
on April 13, 2004
(...) The participants in the Wannsee conference could just as easily been discussing how to increase profit margins in a large business or implementing an innocuous government program. It is a very scary thought that a group of a few men would calmly and rationally debate the means of murdering 11 million fellow humans. This film should be mandatory viewing in our schools to alert kids to the ease with which ordinary people could be turned into monsters.
I would give it five stars if not for the almost illegible sub-titles. Fortunately, I understand enough German to follow most of the dialogue without them.
on August 12, 1999
The Wannsee Conference, a recreation of the meeting in which the final solution was planned, is a shattering experience that leaves you with all kinds of questions and with images that are unforgettable . It is disconcerting to see Heydrich and Eichmann played by regulars of German television, who appear almost weekly on the ever popular German cop-shows 'Derrick' and 'Der Alte'(The Boss).It drives home that these are not demons or mythological monsters, but people like you and me, who have gone horribly astray.