BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 29, 2009
Sony Pictures Classics
My Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler
First Run Features
One of the more thrilling chapters in film history is the account of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The joint career of these Belgian brothers has been, since they became known, breathtaking. After some twenty years of documentary work for Francophone television, in the early 1990s they began to make features. The first two were not widely seen. Then came La Promesse (1996), which was so much better than good, so complete and startling a work, that the occasion seemed less like the arrival of a fine new film than the discovery of a long-lost masterpiece.
That was only the beginning. In relatively short order came three more films, two of which had the same stunning, quasi-timeless effect. Rosetta is fiercely compassionate in temper and point. But The Son and The Child, like La Promesse, are more than compassionate: they are so magnificently simple and large that they tempt grand comparison. They seem, though they are not, adaptations of stories by Tolstoy.
Now comes a new Dardenne work, Lorna's Silence. Its very first shot is reassuring. We see bank notes being counted. Money, the pressing need of it, the results of that pressure, has initially driven all their pictures. But, after that opening, Lorna's Silence changes spheres somewhat. First, physically. The previous films took place in Seraing, a working-class town near Liege. The new film is set in Liege itself, a biggish city, and this is more than a geographical shift. The feel of the film, through its money dealings and what they lead to, is more intricately guileful.
For their drama, the Dardennes have seized on what is apparently a current scam. Belgian citizenship is a considerable prize in Europe these days, and it is available simply by marrying a Belgian. So marriages can be arranged at a price for anyone who wants to become Belgian. Lorna, a young woman from Albania, has become Belgian by marrying Claudy, which was arranged by a trickster named Fabio. Claudy is an advanced junkie who, as part of the deal, is expected to die soon. Fabio’s plan will be complete when Lorna, now Belgian, is married to a Russian who is paying well for his new citizenship.
Fabio drives a taxi, but that is just a cover for these marital maneuvers. Lorna is in love with a man named Sokol, but this will not interfere with the scheme. Sokol knows all about Lorna’s doings and is just waiting for her to get her share of the Russian’s money in order to start a cafe with her.
All these chicaneries are rapidly laid out. Though the directors now rarely use the whip pans--from face to face--for which they were noted, the tempo is almost audibly brisk. The Dardennes are consummate at lithe dialogue that contains needed information during which they keep their film surging forward. We seem to slip swiftly into a forest of shadows. Fabio deepens those shadows. After Claudy unexpectedly makes a sort of recovery from addiction, Fabio tells Lorna that the Russian is getting impatient and that, if (the unsuspecting) Claudy doesn’t die as quickly as hoped, he will be overdosed so that Lorna can then be available to the Russian. Lorna knows that Claudy is doomed anyway, and she is eager for her and Sokol to get their share of the Russian money. She protests ineffectually. (Is this her silence?)
Yet soon after, in a fit of guilt and arousal after a violent fight with Claudy in their apartment, she has sex with him. Possibly out of some sort of compassion for this dupe, she seems to hope for pregnancy by him. Or perhaps she feels that, by bearing his child, she will expiate her guilt in the plot against him. After some weeks, she thinks she is pregnant, which leads to more complications, not to be detailed here. At the end, Lorna is left deluded, self-doomed, her own victim.
But--and it is a sort of compliment--this finish seems too small for a Dardenne film. Can the theme be only the very traversal of the plot’s complications—the stripping away of greedy self-interest to reveal nullity? This has been the point of many a mere crime picture. Previous Dardenne films have tangled with the law and social acceptance, but those plots served as armatures for works of impressive moral size. In Lorna’s Silence the armature is all. All that happens basically here is that the biter is bit. The expected Dardenne dimension, the shiver of cosmic pattern, is missing.
This thinness of texture is rubbed thinner by the character and performance of Lorna. In previous Dardenne films, the protagonist was thoroughly realized, and when he or she behaved badly or mistakenly, we worried. But as Lorna is written, we never know much about her—who she is, how she came to Liege and got involved. When Fabio says that he will have Claudy murdered if necessary, she soon accepts it. Who is the woman who does this? It is difficult to be concerned about her. She has been constructed as a piece in a design, not much more.
This sense of mechanism is abetted by the young Albanian actress Arta Dobroshi. Another actress might have infused Lorna, even as written, with colors, with some sense of the world's entrapment. Dobroshi is at best credible. The rest of the cast is just competent enough, except for Jeremie Renier as Claudy, who is strongly moving. (Renier, by the way, was the fourteen-year-old lead in La Promesse.)
Soberly, then, we must note that the new Dardenne film is not much more than a superior crime picture. From a lesser source, it would shine: it is very tightly and forcefully made. But by now we expect that every picture from the Dardennes will be something of a masterwork. They have spoiled us.
A German comedy called My Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler, despite its desperate subtitle, has some points of interest. Not all of those points were intended, but that makes them only more interesting.
Dani Levy, the writer-director, and Stefan Arndt, the producer, who have worked together before, decided (they say) that the best way to deal with Nazi insanity was to make it funny. Of course this has often been done before, but not in Germany. To push the plan to its uttermost, they apparently began with a gimmick: Hitler needs the help of a Jew. With that twist as their apex, they contrived a plot to reach it.
It is late 1944. Berlin is in ruins, morale is minimal, Hitler is depressive. Goebbels, the Machiavel of the story, has an idea. In his youth he saw a great Jewish actor, Adolf Grunbaum, who is now in Sachsenhausen. He sends for Grunbaum. (Can Levy have remembered that, in Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, an actor is summoned to inflate the persona of a crypto-Hitler? Admittedly, Brecht wasn’t clever enough to make the actor a Jew.) Goebbels has the actor dressed and fed, then greets him cordially, asking him--he actually asks this--not to take the Final Solution personally. He says that the country needs the depressed Fuhrer to be inspirited and that Grunbaum, master actor-director, is the man to do it. In a week or so, there will be a triumphal parade through Berlin--scenery will be erected in front of the ruins along the way--and Hitler must deliver a fiery speech. Goebbels says that Grunbaum must prepare the Fuhrer for that speech. Grunbaum, stoic, strong, insists that in return his wife and children must be released from camps. They are all quickly brought to the Chancellery and stowed safely away. Grunbaum goes to work.
At first Hitler has him thrown out, but at last Grunbaum, his family in mind, goes to work on Hitler like a professional. He has to kindle hate again in the limp Hitler, to make him flame again with fury, and he finds the means in Hitler’s relationship with his hated father. (An echo of The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer's last novel.) Goebbels, observing from the next room through a transparent painting on the wall, is pleased as Hitler begins again to fume.
The plot unwinds, not uncreakily. Past Brecht and Mailer, there is a salient comparison: Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin's screenplay, too, is built on the juxtaposition of a Jew, a barber, with the meister Jew-hater, though they never actually meet. And Chaplin’s story, too, moves toward a great speech at the conclusion. Further, not to spill too much, in both films there is a sleight-of-voice trick at the end. And a further similarity: both Chaplin’s and Levy’s stories are unfinished. We never see what happens after the speech to Chaplin's barber and his girlfriend or to Grunbaum’s family.
Levy's picture is adequately made. The Chancellery, designed by Christian Eisele, has the frozen-stadium feel of Nazi interiors. Levy gets some fun out of the Heil Hitler salute. (Himmler has an injured arm in a brace that is a permanent Heil.) Sylvester Groth as Goebbels has more diabolical charm than one can imagine in the man, but he is theatrically effective. Helge Schneider plays Hitler—a Hitler who seeks our sympathy toward his nightmares about his father's cruelties, which, we are told, resulted in Hitler's oceanic revenges on millions of others. Schneider writhes and screams his best in this thankless job. Ulrich Muhe, the eminent actor who was the Stasi officer in The Lives of Others and who plays Grunbaum here, died after the film was finished. His performance is part of his memorial. Grunbaum's composure and distinction are the tacit response to the ravings of the Fuhrer.
In his later years Chaplin said: "Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator. I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis." Nor, at the time, could many of us have watched the film if we had known what we learned a few years after. But now there comes a burlesque on the subject--from Germany. (It has had some success, as well as opposition, at home.) Possibly, then, the chief importance of this tacked-together script is that it was actually filmed in that country. It exists--a sign that even Germany has reached the point where it is possible to laugh at ludicrous inventions about the monstrous past. Time does not heal all wounds; but some wounds can, in time, acquire several shades of irony.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic at The New Republic.