BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 17, 2002
Nostalgia? That would be insane. Still, there's a chill on the back of the neck, a hint of the passage of time, when Traudl Junge's face appears. This documentary is called Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (Sony Pictures Classics). She is eighty-one years old here, neat, composed. She tells us that when she was twenty-two, Hitler engaged her as one of his private secretaries, and she stayed with him to the end. As she talks of his courtesy and care, of his affection for his dog and other such matters, we realize that after Junge and her contemporaries are gone, all that will be left of the twentieth century is history. Not many of us would want to collect personal souvenirs of Hitler--his shaving brush, his favorite tie; but this film reminds us that the minutiae of life in the past, actual life as it was traversed day by day, are often smothered by the large events around them. Would the loss of those details matter? Yes: Junge's recollections of Hitler are like glimpses backstage at an indescribable tragedy. The research of future historians may unearth more facts, but it cannot supplant the verity of this woman's being, her voice, our look into the eyes that actually saw.
Other interviews have been filmed with people who knew Hitler. The most frightening for me is Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's interview in 1975 of Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred. She remembers the way Hitler played with her children and says firmly that she would be happy to see him walk through the door again. Somewhere in the past, too, I saw a documentary in which a Hitler valet, in a manner much like Junge's, reminisces about an amiable, considerate man. The memories of secretaries and valets do not contradict the horror surrounding them: they magnify it (if that is possible).
Blind Spot was made by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, Austrians who persuaded Junge to break the fifty-five-year silence that she had maintained about her Hitler years. Perhaps she decided to speak because she was terminally ill, though she doesn't look it. Heller and Schmiderer quite wisely did very little to "cinematize" the ninety-minute interview. The camera moves occasionally to change our view of the seated woman, and sometimes--I don't know why--we get a shot of her looking at a screen that displays a previous shot of her. Even less would have been even more.
Junge doesn't tell us a great deal that hasn't been known for some time, but at the least she corroborates and, especially, she was there. She was there, in that private office and, later, in that bunker. She tells us that she knew nothing of the camps, though she heard Hitler mention them once, and knew nothing of the exterminations. In her case this is more credible than with other such protestants: Junge did not, like others who said they did not know, live in a community from which people disappeared. The most gripping part of her account is, inevitably, the final days in the bunker. Hitler dictated his last will and testament to her, and we figuratively glimpse the man who had caused millions and millions and millions of deaths calmly preparing for his own. She and others tried to persuade Frau Goebbels to let her children be evacuated, but the mother felt that her children's lives in postwar Germany, with the Goebbels name, would be unbearable, so they died with their parents.
Junge says nothing of her own rescue from the bunker or how she returned to her hometown, Munich. She does tells us that, one day in the postwar years, she passed a memorial to Sophie Scholl and first felt guilt at her ignorance of what had been happening in Germany. (Scholl and some of her fellow students, anti-Hitler activists, are the subject of The White Rose, Michael Verhoeven's agonizing film about the students' efforts, their capture, their execution.) Junge was struck especially by the fact that Scholl and her friends were executed--let's use the right word, decapitated--in 1942, the year she went to work for Hitler.
Blind Spot had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 2002. Junge, hospitalized, died a few hours later. So the monstrous twentieth century recedes into libraries; and so a small cog in the mechanism of that monstrosity bequeaths us her memory of it in a quiet, measured way. That tone! Among other mysteries, we are left wondering how a woman who had been near the center of such things could still look and sound like a human being.
Life is a cabaret, old chum. If we hadn't learned that from the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical Cabaret, we now get another chance at this wisdom in Chicago (Miramax), Rob Marshall's film of a later Kander-Ebb musical. The 1996 Broadway revival of the show--the revival that prompted this film--is based on Bob Fosse's original and very apt staging in 1975. It is done like a big-band vaudeville act of the 1920s, which is the period of the story. The band is on stage throughout, and the plot scenes, just like the musical numbers, are done in front of the band as part of the "show." In the film, not everything could be performed in front of a band, but all the scenes that take place elsewhere are intercut with musical versions of the very same scenes being performed on a glitzy cabaret stage. Get it now, old chum, about life and the cabaret?
Chicago has a touch of historical interest. In the 1920s a journalist named Maurine Watkins enrolled in George Pierce Baker's famous playwriting course at Yale and wrote a play based on her experience of Al Capone's Chicago. The play made its way to Broadway success, in part because it highlighted a city's corruption, and it was filmed twice. By the time the musical of Chicago came along in 1975, the raw facts about Capone and corruption were well cooked. The current Broadway revival has to try still harder to seem daring. Marshall's film sensibly downplays the exposé aspect and concentrates on the numbers as numbers, loud and leggy, with a skein of story connecting them.
Roxie Hart is a showgirl, married, who murders her ratty boyfriend. A sly lawyer named Billy Flynn specializes in such cases, gets her off, and makes her a celebrity. She teams up in an act with another showgirl-criminal, Velma Kelly, and they wow audiences. (The original play had a thin suggestion of Brechtian cynicism. Gone now.) Catherine Zeta-Jones is surprisingly lithe and snappy as Velma. Renee Zellweger is puffy and dull as Roxie, straining to get on top of her role and her song-and-dance routines but not making it. As Flynn, Richard Gere also never really takes over. A game try, though, especially in his dance numbers.
Marshall also did the choreography, or most of it, which relates him distantly to the much more gifted Bob Fosse, who did both direction and dances for his 1975 production. The most striking aspect of this film is the lighting by Jules Fisher and others, which manages to maintain a theatrical feeling even in the non-theater moments. The life-and-cabaret fusion relies heavily on that lighting.
But the net effect of the incessant dazzle is depressing. Not merely because the Kander-Ebb score is less than overwhelming or because the erstwhile frank material is now dim or because most of the lead performances are weak. Chicago is being hailed by many as a disclosure, a harbinger of more glitz to come: the return of the Hollywood musical. The basic purpose of the old Hollywood musical, the extravaganza à la Busby Berkeley, was not escape, a brief holiday in another life, but utter anesthesia. Everything in those films was so deliberately exaggerated--dozens of pianos in one shot, enormous gleaming floors, hordes of young men and women moving in gymkhana simultaneity with fixed smiles on their faces--that we weren't just taken out of our lives but out of anything like reality. The Hollywood musical world negates reason more thoroughly than any other genre. After two hours of Chicago, it was hard to focus on the headlines of the newspapers on the stand outside the theater. Are we really to expect more of these anesthetics? I had thought that nitty-gritty was the passion of our time. Has the nitty become too gritty? Now that I can read those headlines again, this seems possible. Musicals may be an out.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann