History is Relevant

Paper by Keely Krasomil.

Political films based on real historical events often trouble and disturb most professional historians. They believe that films fictionalize, trivialize and romanticize significant individuals, events, and movements (Rosenstone 5). In other words, they believe films falsify history. The films ​The Lives of Others, Downfall, &​ ​The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ​focus on consequential events throughout Germany, specifically Nazi Germany and​ ​the issues surrounding East Germany in the 1980s. All of these events had an extreme and devastating effect on many individuals. It is important to consider the effect that movies and television shows have on a viewer’s perception of the facts. This paper will examine how ​The Lives of Others, Downfall, ​& The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ​have a significant impact on history and our understanding of the past by paying attention to film analysis and academic research. The topic of historical responsibility in film is highly significant because it is essential to comprehend how to learn from the past. Historical accuracy is essential because it provides a glimpse into what truly happened during specific time periods. Our current world exists because of the past and it is important to understand how to improve for the future.

The Lives of Others – ​Historical Background & Analysis

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, previously guarded details about
the oppressive East German regime slowly became accessible (Carson).​ ​The passage of the 1991 Stasi Records Act allowed access to the most horrifying and revealing files of the Ministry for State Security. Called the “Stasi”, the East German secret police, from their headquarters in East Berlin, maintained a large surveillance network with informants and agents infiltrating nearly every part of private and public life (Carson).​ ​The terrifying Stasi utilized spies and surveillance to know every secret aspect about their citizens. The film ​The Lives of Others ​is an inner view at how a society set up to discover and prey upon human frailty makes every person a possible suspect and ruins everything it touches (Turan).

The Lives of Others ​is an important film for two reasons: 1) it is a striking example of how cinema tells a story by visual means as much as the script; 2) the film raises very significant questions for history in our virtual era, a time when the reach and influence of film makers far extends that of the historian (Coulter 1).​ I​ t​ i​ s set in the final years of East Germany’s declining socialist regime. It tells the story of the clandestine relationship between a devoted artist driven to dissent and the coldly professional secret policeman assigned to his case who, provoked by revulsion and disillusionment, turns into his secret guard. It is the first dramatic motion picture to treat the history of the previous German Democratic Republic​ ​(Pfaff 110). The film deals directly with the role of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in securing the regime’s hold over society. In its ambitions to depict the genuine workings of the police state, the foul reality of Stasi infiltration and surveillance, and the dirtiness of daily life in the GDR, the film provides a chance to revisit East German history.

A diverse panel of German and American scholars discussed the film, its interpretation and public impact (Pfaff 110).​ ​They credited the film with reawakening interest in the GDR and its history on both sides of the Atlantic and for its capability to uplift the debate around the East German past. Some panelists believed that the film did well in expressing the atmosphere of the time and place. One of the panelists observed that the dominance of grey tones and location shots are efficacious in reproducing the atmosphere of East Berlin in the mid-1980s (Pfaff 111).​ ​The film also expresses the oppressive political climate in the GDR, one of distrust and suspicion that penetrated almost all societal levels.

As much as Wiesler and the other Stasi agents speak in the bureaucratic lingo and occupy real places of the Ministry for State Security, there are some areas in which the film misrepresents the activities and daily workings of the secret police. Wiesler is depicted as a type of Stasi jack-of-all-trades, who engages in training, examination, interrogation, routine surveillance, etc. In real life, the highly bureaucratic state security apparatus had a rational division of labor in which those tasks were separated (Pfaff 111). Among other things, this would have made Wiesler’s attempts to protect the items of his surveillance more difficult and would have denied him so much control over the Dreyman case. Some of the strategies that Wiesler teaches in the intelligence school and uses against Dreyman and Sieland were either no longer in usage in the 1980s or had distinct applications than those portrayed in the film.

Wiesler’s transformation into a secret guardian angel of George and Christa-Marie is an artist’s dream of redemption. Wiesler is saved by his looks into the lifeworld of the artist and by his sharing of the beauty of the ​Sonata for a Good Man (​ Pfaff 112). Wiesler transforms into the good man through this process. Wiesler is morally awakened and comes to see his connection with Georg. The panelists believe the film provides to the modern German public a reconciliation fantasy​ ​(Pfaff 112). The transnational appeal of the film may lie in its positiveness: the journey of Wiesler from orthodox technocrat to secret-sharer in the lives of Georg and Christa-Marie declares the perseverance of humanity even among the most soulless political conditions. In the course of his surveillance, it is foremost music and poetry that open up new worlds of emotion and thought to Wiesler, even as he becomes sadly informed of his own isolation and emotional suppression. If the film’s message is one of resistance to power, then it is a resistance informed by and expressed through art.

The panelists emphasized that the film should be a chance for experts to remind the public that the GDR cannot be reduced to the Stasi, however principal it was to the regime’s operation. The Stasi was pervasive and had a large effect on life in East Germany. It had a chief part in maintaining the regime and suppressing threats to its political regulation, and its institutional reach was massive. Silence, indifference, and opportunism are as much a part of the story of East German society as are the black-and-white figures of the perpetrators and victims. The director briefly touches on the gray zone between opposition and suppression in his portrayal of Georg’s neighbor, who assists him in managing his secret of being incapable to fix his necktie while keeping her own collusion with the Stasi’s intrusion into his personal sphere concealed (Pfaff 113). This encounter endures no more than an arresting episode in the film and a missed chance to broaden the scope of the story beyond artistic dissidents and secret police groups. By making the reason for Stasi surveillance of Dreyman the sexual desire of a corrupt government minister, the film is unsuccessful in examining how the GDR identified political nonconformity (Pfaff 113). It was the mixture of ideological passion and paranoia, instead of base personal motives, that led to the arrogance of control in the GDR.

One of the panelists observed in their remarks, “The genre of historical film is doubtlessly useful for awakening curiosity. At the same time, such films can contaminate our remembrance with a flood of artistic images or with what only appears to be authentic historical narrative” (Pfaff 115).​ ​It seems from the panel discussion that Donnersmarck’s film offers material to support either understanding. ​The​ ​Lives of Others s​ hould be mainly understood as a work of cinematic art, and only secondarily as a window on a contested past.

Downfall – H​ istorical Background & Analysis

The Nazi-era and Hitler’s disastrous rule are among the most largely researched themes
in German historiography​ ​(Kirchner). The film ​Downfall ​depicts the final twelve days in the life of Adolf Hitler, told from the perspective of Tradul Junge, one of Hitler’s personal secretaries (Haase 191).​ ​It is based in parts on Junge’s biography and the book, “The Downfall” by historian Joachim Fest (Eckardt). It takes place at the moment the Nazi project shifted from murder to suicide. In the streets of Berlin, bombarded by Russian artillery, small children wield anti-tank guns, and death squads execute citizens for supposedly cooperating with the Red Army (Scott). Hitler alternates between coolly planning his own end and condemning his faithful lieutenants as betrayers. The people around him attempt to choose among the obtainable choices of flight, death or surrender and wonder at the limits of their own allegiance. The film takes a personal approach toward the topic of Germany’s Nazi past, one that German filmmakers have hesitated to touch​ ​(Eckardt).

According to Jane McGrath, the film brilliantly thrives both as compelling art and accurate history​ ​(McGrath).​ ​The revolting way the Nazis worshiped Hitler was portrayed accurately in the film. The admiration for Hitler was allegedly strong enough to kill yourself and your own family for. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife did not desire their children to grow up in a world without Hitler and national socialism. This led them to deprive their children of their lives and murder them with poison. This was one of the most somber parts of the film and one would hope did not truly occur, but unfortunately, it did. Joseph Goebbels and his wife murdered their children in Hitler’s bunker because they desired to follow his example. After they murdered their children, they took their own lives because Germany without Hitler was similar to death in their mindset. This circumstance may sound disturbing enough, but was only one of many suicides demonstrated in the film. Eva Braun also took her own life as a indication of loyalty towards him. This devotion is also accurately depicted in the film. Eva killed herself by biting a poisonous capsule at the same time Hitler killed himself. Another example of loyalty to the Fuhrer was accurately captured through the character who played Tradi Junge. Hitler told people in the bunker that he was not leaving Berlin. Tradi Junge, along with many other individuals, decided to stay with him even though they knew they had a large risk of dying. An important aspect of the film demonstrates Tradi accepting death for Hitler. She asked him for a bullet to kill herself so that the Russians could not catch her. Even though Junge made it out alive in the film, accurately capturing the genuine event, her desire to kill herself for him reveals the enormous faithfulness to the Fuhrer. She even typed his last will and testament, accurately shown in the film. The film also displayed what the final battles in Berlin were like. It demonstrated what multiple Germans saw as their last sight. The accurate details in the film make the battles even more disturbing. Hitler continued to fight even with nothing left in his army because he denied to give up. Throughout the last battles of the war the film constantly demonstrates clips of kids staying behind to battle because they had to listen to Hitler’s orders. Hitler would rather burn down his nation than relinquish. The film brought to life Hitler’s disregard for his people’s safety. He states that within a war as such there are no civilians. This statement completely illuminates what he truly believed. He would not even consider giving up even if the entire nation was at risk.

The film raised concern amongst some individuals due to it allowing the audience to sympathize with the Fuhrer (Bathrick 2). Some even questioned if this should be allowed.​ ​Bernd Eichinger, one of Germany’s top directors, stated that it is possible. “Some day, we have to be capable of telling our own history” (Eckardt).​ ​Bruno Ganz, the actor who portrayed Hitler in the film, agreed with the director and said, “If I would not have felt sympathy for the character and would not have managed to make the audience feel sympathy for the creature Hitler, then I would have failed in my job as an actor” (Eckardt).​ ​Hitler was an embodiment of evil who had the ability to charm and seduce people into barbarism. Evil comes along with a smiling face, and although the film does portray him acting rather kind to his people, this does not indicate that he was a humane person. He himself remains an enigma. Author Sebastian Haffner believes that he was like a shell. Inside of this shell, there is nothing. “There is no warmth, no heart, and no passion for anything, except a huge desire for destruction” (Johnston).​ ​The audience should comprehend that the film does not want to enforce the belief that Hitler was an ordinary human being with humane feelings. The film does not attempt to make him sympathetic, but humanizes him. It illustrates how incomprehensible evil can be committed by relatively normal human beings. Hitler was only kind and rather humane towards people who admired him. He had a variety of skills under his sleeve to manipulate and seduce individuals in to his interests. In reality, evil is always cunning, and comes in a nice and colorful wrapper (Winston).

Through this film, it is very possible to relive the past and experience what truly occurred near the end of World War II. The accuracy and details that the director placed in the picture truly helped audiences get into Hitler’s frame of mind and what it must have been like surrounded by him for his final days. The blind loyalty of the Nazis, even throughout Hitler’s madness, was captured throughout by many suicides, devotions, and fighting even knowing they had not won. The film is a truly powerful and disturbing example that accurately depicts what truly happened, and the devastating impact this time period had on many individuals.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – H​istorical Background & Analysis

Film portrayals of the Holocaust have become a ubiquitous part of social studies education​ ​(Rich and Pearcy).​ ​Given the growth in mandates and absence of more rigorous content knowledge expertise, numerous teachers turn to films like ​The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, ​to represent, for students, the horrors of the Holocaust. The film is greatly problematic due to historical inaccuracy. ​The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ​is a very enjoyable book with a simple and powerful plot, and the film adaptation of the work is also relatively short and equally impactful (Rich and Pearcy).​ ​However, this source’s deficiencies are significant and may prevent a full reckoning with the historical nature of the Holocaust.

The film ​The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ​was based on the book of the same name by John Boyne. The book, which is labeled a fable, focuses on a nine year old boy named Bruno. He is the son of the camp Commandant of “Off-With”. The name “Off-With” is mispronounced by Bruno, but it is apparent that he is referring to the death camp at Auschwitz. Bruno is portrayed as a sweet and sensitive little boy who does not comprehend the context of the war occuring around him or the nature of the Nazi regime. After his father accepts command of “Off-With”, Bruno becomes friends with a boy named Shmuel, a Jewish boy imprisoned in the camp. Throughout the story they develop a deep friendship, regardless of being on different sides of the barbed wire. While readers grow sympathy for Shmuel and the others in Off-With, it is Bruno who drives the narrative. On the day before he has to move back to Berlin with his mother and sister, motivated by loneliness and his rapidly growing friendship, Bruno disguises himself as a Jewish prisoner and sneaks into the camp to explore with Shmuel (Rich and Pearcy). Bruno misses the friends he left behind moving to Off-With and believes that those in the camp might have a better life than he has outside of it. When Bruno and Shmuel move to the center of Off-With, they are rounded up with a large group of Jewish prisoners and marched to the gas chamber. The reader or viewer’s focus is drawn to the death of the boys, and they experience huge emotion when they are killed.

Scholars have criticized the film for obscuring the historical facts about the Holocaust and establishing an incorrect equivalence between victims and perpetrators (Eaglestone 159). For example, towards the end of the film, the grief of Bruno’s family is portrayed, encouraging the viewer to feel sympathy for Holocaust perpetrators. Michael Gray wrote that the story is not very realistic and consists of many implausibilities, because kids were killed when they arrived at Auschwitz and it was impossible for them to have contact with people on the outside (Gray).​ ​A study by the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London discovered that the film “is having a significant, and significantly problematic impact on the way young people attempt to make sense of this complex past” (Foster 94).

Many of us do not know Holocaust survivors; therefore, we rely on films, literature and television shows to help us comprehend events that shaped the world in which we live. A.S. Marcus describes how films are the most frequently used source for teaching about the Holocaust, with almost seventy percent of secondary-level teachers surveyed reporting the use of films and documentaries on the subject (Marcus 169).​ ​It is safe to say that the images that we see become the event itself for us; so, we must be careful with the images and narratives that we choose.

By viewing this film one cannot expect to learn completely accurate information on the Holocaust or Germany during World War II. The story itself is meant to be a fable rather than a historically accurate piece. It relates to history by depicting history. While the film was subjected to criticism for its portrayal of the Holocaust, it did make an effort to illuminate the scale of tragedy and inhumanity existent in Europe during the period portrayed. A movie is not only a representation of a given time period or occurrence but it is also a product of the specific choices, perspectives, and beliefs of the filmmakers (Rich and Pearcy​). ​Although the setting in ​The Boy in the Striped Pajamas ​was all too real, the fabulist nature of the story may arouse in students a strong emotional reaction, something that can obscure critical thinking and historical inquiry (Stoddard 221). Students need to develop their ability to identify different perspectives and to determine, in a film’s narrative, “which voices are represented and which are missing” (Mathews 248). This is historical film literacy: “the ability to assess a given film’s content, dominant themes, and the filmmakers’ embedded perspectives” (Marcus 171).

The events depicted in all three of these films​ ​had an extremely devastating effect on many individuals. Knowing your history is such a significant part of society. It informs us of the the successes, failures and mistakes committed in the past. Becoming aware of these aspects can lead to a better overall society and future. History in film can also be important for educating people about accuracies and inaccuracies. Historical accuracy in film is crucial because for many people, film is a tool to help educate themselves about history. Film is a common platform to learn history from, so accurately depicting facts is essential for people to know the truth. It is significant to look back on previous circumstances and evaluate what went right and wrong. Life is a constant learning lesson, and it is essential to never forget what truly happened.

Works Cited
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Rich, Jennifer, and Mark Pearcy. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: Critical Analysis of a Film Depiction of the Holocaust.” The Social Studies, vol. 109, no. 6, 2018, pp. 294–308.
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