Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hans and the Basterds

It doesn’t happen that often, but occasionally you see a movie while you are in the middle of precisely the right book! That happened to me last week and the effect was so interesting to me—both in terms of how each affected my impression of the other and how the experience itself gave me the courage to pose a question to myself I generally prefer to avoid asking—that I resolved to write about it this week to share the experience with all of you.

The book, Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone, has its own interesting back story. Fallada, born Rudolph Ditzen, was a reasonably successful novelist in Germany before the Second World War. When the Nazis came to power, however, they took note of the fact that his most successful book (which was published here and in the U.K. under the title Little Man, What Now?) had been made into a Hollywood movie by Jewish producers and thus began Fallada’s problems. Joseph Goebbels himself took an interest in the author’s work, however, and suggested that he redeem himself by writing a novel with a profoundly anti-Semitic theme, a project that Fallada formally agreed to undertake but then spent the rest of the war years not actually accomplishing. This act of passive resistance, combined with a life-long problem with alcohol and drug usage and an unfortunate incident in which he attempted to win an argument with his wife by shooting a gun at her, landed the man in a Nazi insane asylum. There he survived by pretending to write the great Nazi novel Goebbels had commissioned but secretly writing another book entirely, one he somehow managed covertly to encode in the book on which he only appeared to be working. The book, eventually published in English as The Drinker, was deeply critical of the Nazi regime and has come to be considered his masterwork. And then the war ended and Fallada was released back into the world.

For a short while, Fallada seemed poised to regain his stature in the world of German letters. But the hardship of life in a Nazi asylum plus his ongoing morphine addiction made it impossible for him to survive and he died just a little more than a year after his release. And that brings me to the book I want to tell you about. In a state that his wife described as one of “white heat,” Fallada wrote one final novel in a period of just twenty-four days shortly before he died. It is a huge work, but a magnificent one…and it has finally been published in English by Brooklyn publishers Melville House under the title Every Man Dies Alone. That’s the book I just finished the other day and it is truly extraordinary.

The story itself is relatively simple and all the more chilling for being based on a true incident. A German couple, called the Quangels in the book, have a single son who is drafted into the German army, then killed in action. Unable to come to terms with their loss and allowing their grief to galvanize their hatred of the Nazis, the Quangels feel at first completely powerless. But then they determine that no human being need feel totally impotent in the face of evil, that there is always something to do, always some gesture worth making. And so, impoverished and wholly without influence or power, they conceive of the simplest of ideas: they will write anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and then leave the cards in public places for people to see. In this way, they hope, “regular” German citizens horrified by Nazism will be reminded that they are not alone, that others share their feelings. From this, they further hope, might come the seeds of real opposition, perhaps even open rebellion. It is the most quixotic of undertakings. Even the Quangels know that. And yet they persevere, eventually leaving hundreds of cards for others to find. The book itself introduces a wide range of very rich secondary characters to create a sense of what day-to-day life was like in Nazi Berlin, but the author always comes back to the Quangels—to their seditious behavior, to the Gestapo’s relentless efforts to identify them, to their arrest, their incarceration, their trial, and, eventually, their execution. As I said, it is an exceptional book—and the chapters describing the conditions in jail under which the Quangels await their trial are exceeded in shock value only by the account of their trial, which is itself exceeded only by the account of their experiences in jail after they are found guilty of treason as they await the guillotine.

But more than it is horrifying, Fallada’s novel is incredibly moving. Here are two people who are uneducated, almost illiterate, untrained in philosophy or political science, not especially religious…and yet who cannot bear to do nothing in the face of evil. They make all sorts of mistakes. Their written German is filled with spelling errors. They more or less know that they will eventually be caught. And yet they simply cannot stand to remain passive in the face of injustice, in the face of evil, in the face of a regime wholly devoted to the degradation of its victims.

I found that kind of simple determination not to do nothing breathtaking…both in terms of the general way in which it forces me to re-evaluate the power of human beings to take charge of their lives and in the more specific way that it forces me to ask whether I would have had the courage or the strength of character to behave similarly. As we enter into our national season of self-analysis and introspection, this is not the most pleasant of questions to ponder, let alone to ask out loud. And yet I find that I cannot keep from thinking about it, from thinking about how the book would read if it was about me and not based on the story of a German couple eventually beheaded at the Plötzensee Prison in March of 1943. (The real couple were Elise and Otto Hampel. I’ve called them the Quangels because that was Fallada’s name for them in his book, but my real admiration of course is for the real people he was memorializing in his book.)

And it was while I was still in the middle of Every Man Dies Alone that I went to see Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s hit movie starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, and Mélanie Laurent. It’s an interesting movie from a dozen different vantage points and, I think, one worth seeing. But the reason it had the impact on me that it did was precisely because I saw it while I was in the middle of Fallada’s last novel. Inglourious Basterds (the misspelled words in the title are never really explained) is about revenge. And not just revenge in general, but the kind of fantasy revenge against the Nazis that I imagine every one of us has harbored at one time or another. This is not another tale of Jewish impotence against a foe so menacing and so brutal as to be basically undefeatable. Nor is this a tale of scheming brainiacs figuring out how to build even bigger and more effective bombs that other people can drop on invisible targets from high up in the sky. This is a tale of revenge featuring a band of Jewish soldiers led (for some reason) by a hillbilly with Apache blood in him who totally gets it, who perfectly understands the mindset of the Jews under his command.

It sounds implausible. But implausible is what this movie is all about. No one seems to mind that Brad Pitt’s soldiers are, as far as the viewer can tell, totally free to do as they please behind enemy lines. The easy brutality with which they kill any German soldiers they come across combined with the way the lone survivor is invariably marked permanently with a symbol of his service in the Nazi army appears to be no one’s business but their own. They have friends in high places, including Winston Churchill. And when their effort to destroy the Wehrmacht soldier by soldier amazingly happens to coincide with a concurrent plot being pursued by a French Jewish woman who is herself the sole survivor of the brutal massacre of her family with which the movie opens, the opportunity presents itself to end the war almost instantly by destroying the entire Nazi leadership at once. I won’t say how the movie ends—it’s both a huge surprise and not that much of one somehow at the same time—but the basic concept is easy to seize: vengeance is theirs and once the Nazis seize that point and truly internalize it, it can really only be a matter of time until the thousand-year-Reich crumbles away and hostilities cease.

It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Inglourious Basterds because the movie conforms to so many of our favorite fantasies. But, of course, that isn’t how it really works. Soldiers aren’t free to conduct their own campaigns of terror against enemy troops. Killing a few score Nazi soldiers, or a few hundred, would not have ended the war no matter how brutally they were executed or by whom. The German leadership would likely not have convened in a single room in an occupied country without posting at least some armed guards around the perimeter. And great would it have been for this to have been true! That’s how you leave the theater, after all: knowing it didn’t happen but wishing fervently that it had!

And then there are the Quangel/Hampels to consider. They didn’t have unlimited fire power. They didn’t have guns or jeeps or machetes at their disposal. They were facing certain death if they were caught, not the possibility of becoming prisoners of war...and they knew that they would certainly be caught eventually. The brave boys under Brad Pitt’s command are thrilling to watch, but they’re not real. Nor could they have been. But the people in Fallada’s novel were real. They had no weapons at their disposal other than their simple will to do something, not to be totally passive, not to give in to tyranny without resisting at least symbolically. And so the people in the movie are destined to be remembed as fictitous players in the world of fantasy revenge, while the Hampels will be remembered by anyone who reads Fallada’s book as true heroes in spirit and in deed.

I felt chastened by my reading of Every Man Dies Alone. I was shocked by a lot of what I read—some of the details concerning the way the Nazis treated regular German citizens are almost beyond belief, as is Fallada’s account of the way the German justice system functioned under the Nazis—but I also felt ennobled. The Quangel/Hampels were real people. In every measurable way, they were unlike me: Germans not Americans, Gentiles not Jews, quasi-illiterate not university educated, etc. But all of that fades into the background as I find myself asking the one question that I want the least to ask, let alone to answer: are they also unlike me in that they were not merely unwilling but actually unable to do nothing in the face of injustice, in the face of evil? I ask that question aloud not because I wish to answer it in public with respect to myself, but merely to show that it can be asked and to assure you that it can also be answered. By me personally, of course, with respect to myself but also by each of us. But what that answer will be...that is something we will all have to say for ourselves.

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