Wednesday 26 June 2013

Lore: Breaking Down the Ideological Barrier

“The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.”
― Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, 1976

“A vast army of ghosts, cripples and monsters inhabited my dream landscapes, where cities were burned and forests were mowed down by a hail of bombs.”
―Melita Maschmann, Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self, 1964.

In 1933 when Melita Maschmann was fifteen years old, she secretly joined the girls’ division of the Hitler Youth in a protest against her wealthy conservative parents. Her goal was to escape from her “childish narrow life,” and attach herself “to something that was great and fundamental.” For almost twenty years, she remained a committed, avowed Nazi supporter experiencing at times “overwhelming joy” as she worked in the press and propaganda sections during the 1930s and supervised the evictions of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms during the war years. By the end of the war, she exposed herself to danger expecting to die since she was unable to imagine “an existence robbed of the possibility an inner life.” Even after she spent three years in prison and underwent the compulsory de-Nazification program, she remained an unrepentant Nazi. Then over the next twelve years she underwent a profound transformation that culminated in her mea culpa memoir, Account Rendered, which attempted to understand not excuse “the wrong and even the evil steps I took.” It was likely the first time a former National Socialist publicly acknowledged that she had served “an inhuman political system,” and admitted that she had never thought for herself. The vast majority, like the parents in the novella and film adaptation Lore, burned any incriminating documents. They regarded Maschmann’s memoir as a form of betrayal and never forgave her.

Lore, her siblings and Thomas
Lore (short for Hannelore), the central character of Rachel Seiffert’s “Lore,” one of three interlocking novellas in the 2001 The Dark Room, and in Cate Shortland’s 2012 film, Lore, is roughly the same age as Maschmann was in 1933. The setting for the novella and the film is Bavaria in the spring of 1945. The girl of the title shepherds her four younger siblings that range from about twelve to a baby on a perilous trek through a ruined country under foreign occupation to reach the grandmother’s home outside of Hamburg several hundred kilometres away. The film might be understood as a latter-day Grimm tale: the mother warns Lore to stay from soldiers because "they kill all the children." Like Maschmann, she too undergoes a psychological odyssey from Hitlerian delirium to the beginning of awareness about the truth of the Nazi horror, a process in which she is forced to confront the demons of Nazi indoctrination and its consequences. As a result of her harrowing ordeal, Maschmann was permanently scarred. We do not know of course the future of Lore but the evidence from other sources suggests that the offspring and descendants of powerful Nazi officials did experience lives fraught with guilt and shame and found different ways to cope. As a vehicle for reparation, some converted to Judaism

Account Rendered is cast in the form of an open letter to an unnamed Jewish woman whom she has not seen in twenty-five years, but who had once been a close girlfriend. Maschmann explains how she compartmentalized individual Jews that she liked from “the Jews” whom she believed were an “active force for evil.” She especially regretted that she had succumbed to the pressure from the Gestapo to spy on her friend’s family, who were suspected of hosting an anti-Nazi group in their home. As a result, the Gestapo arrested members of her friend’s family. She regrets the experience as a “lamentable episode.” 

For years nobody knew the identity of her friend. There was even speculation that her “friend” was a literary construct. It now turns out that her friend was (and is) a living person: Marianne Schweitzer, now ninety five and living in La Jolla California. As reported by Helen Epstein in the New Yorker, Schweitzer was living in Panama teaching German and was invited in 1963 by the Goethe institute, along with other scholars, to visit Germany. There she met with Maschmann and read her manuscript. Schweitzer was so appalled by her former friend’s betrayal that she never saw her again. In her interview with Epstein, Schweitzer, now ninety five, fills in gaps missing from Account Rendered. Whereas Maschmann does not recall ever discussing the issue of anti-Semitism with her friend, Schweitzer remembers telling her that Hitler sounded like a hysterical fanatic and Maschmann replying that she “was not able to appreciate his greatness because [she] had Jewish blood.” Schweitzer also  has vivid memories about what happened to her family as a result of Maschmann’s infamy: her older sister was sent to a concentration camp, her mother was arrested and her father was badly beaten during Kristallnacht. Yet in retrospect, Schweitzer acknowledged Maschmann’s courage for honestly confronting her Nazi past.

Unlike Maschmann, Lore’s demons are not of her own making but that of her family and her country – but she has imbibed them. The war is over and the Third Reich is in a state of rigor mortis.  Her SS father, Vati, after a brief appearance disappears to an unknown future and her ice-cold Nazi mother, Mutti, has been beaten and raped, yet Lore still believes the Fuhrer’s pledge of a “final victory.” Being the oldest child, she  is more inclined to parrot her parents’ views. From the beginning it is clear, however, that Lore has a limited understanding of the Nazi worldview and events, and her perspective is what infuses the film and the novella. Unfortunately, Seiffert’s prose is at times so lean that the reader is left to fill in the details; Shortland fills in the context. For example, there is only a brief reference to her father’s uniform in the novella but in the film, the SS uniform and other small details suggests that he was the commander of the mobile death squads that killed millions on the Eastern Front. Before stoically surrendering to the Americans and providing her daughter with a smattering of her jewelry to purchase food, her mother admonishes Lore, “You must remember who you are.” But in this vastly changed, almost surreal environment with corpses dotting the scorched earth and hoards of hungry people scavenging the land, being the children of the Nazi elite poses problems as their suspicious rural neighbours want nothing to do with them. They only grudgingly provide food after they have extracted money or a valuable from the children. One detail from the book that might have been inserted into the film is Lore’s warning to her younger siblings that they should not tell Germans about their parents, an early indication that they are somehow contaminated.
Her Nazi assumptions further unravel when Lore catches glimpses of photographs from the death camps that the Allies have posted in the towns. While other onlookers dismiss the corpses as American actors (Maschmann initially believed these pictures were a propaganda trick), Lore is unsettled by the searing images, especially after she juxtaposes one of them with that of her father in uniform. Without any dialogue, she communicates confusion and hurt in her face as a layer of indoctrination is slowly peeled away. Further complicating her feelings is the presence of Thomas, an older boy with a tattoo number on his arm who apparently has escaped from a concentration camp. He initially appears to be a predator but turns out to be their inscrutable protector posing as their brother. Although the boys are enthralled with Thomas – they are too young to be tainted by anti-Semitism – Lore has decidedly mixed feelings: all her life she has been inculcated with the belief that Jews were untrustworthy and enemies of Germany. Given her budding sexuality, she is torn between disgust and lust for him, and needing him. His survival skills and Jewish papers enable him to negotiate with the American soldiers at checkpoints, to cadge food and access the trains once they begin to operate.
Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) and Thomas (Kai Malina)
Those skills are tested in the most challenging part of the trip: the crossings from the American zone to the dangerous Russian sector and into the safety of the British territory where the grandmother lives. Maneuvering this treacherous terrain would have been impossible without his assistance. Once Lore and her brood arrive at their destination, the grandmother tries to reassure them that their parents did nothing wrong, a statement that Lore does not believe. As the grandmother demands great deference to the family elders, Lore’s adolescent rage begins to boil and she seeks out an inanimate target for her rebellion. The novella’s ending that combines Lore’s pain and hopefulness about a better future is not as convincing.

Lore is of course fictional yet there are other sources available that suggest the adult lives of the offspring of powerful Nazi officials were difficult. Wibke Bruhns’ 2009 intensely personal memoir, My Father’s Country: A Story of a German Family (Arrow Books), was her attempt to come to terms with her family heritage including her SS father who was tried and executed for his participation in the 1944 attempted assassination of Hitler. Bruhns was a baby when the war broke out and she never knew her father. Although an accomplished journalist, she avoided exploration of her family history because the topic had been too painful to tackle. Even a decade after the war, most Germans regarded individuals associated with the abortive plot to be traitors and the government denied their families any financial assistance. "He was an open wound in her life," says Bruhns, who endured a lonely, troubled childhood. At school she was ostracized and later expelled as a troublemaker: the head said she had "bad blood." One of her sisters committed suicide. After she entered psychoanalysis and her mother died, she decided she was ready to investigate her daunting subject.  Her parents' letters, her mother’s diary and other family memorabilia  were disturbing for her as they reveal their extreme nationalism, commitment to blood purity and willful blindness to the cruelty that was perpetrated on the regime’s victims. Writing the book was part of her therapy.

Similarly, Israeli director, Chanoch Zeevi’s 2011 documentary, Hitler’s Children, tracked down five descendants of Hitler’s closest accomplices and encouraged them to talk about how their lineage has affected their lives. All of them have
Niklas Frank
carry the burden of their surname and have experienced guilt and shame. But they have responded in different ways: the great-niece of Hermann Goring had herself sterilized and moved to New Mexico, while the son of Hans Frank feels the urgent responsibility to educate the German young about the crimes committed by the Nazis, including his infamous father. Having some awareness about real life children or descendants of Nazi officials only enhances the poignancy we feel for the vulnerable young in Lore.

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