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Crosses, Swastikas and Incarnation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Tuesday, 22 December 2009 01:12

Hitler and Child

While waiting for the computer to render various parts of movie clips for later this week I've been watching the 1973 film  Swastika. Browsing through the Tesco DVD Rental catalogue to add titles to our DVD queue I had put Leni Riefenstahl's iconic Triumph of the Will, the extraordinarily advanced piece of propaganda film work from 1935, on the list and Swastika also by way of balance!

They are completely contrasting works, yet in a very interesting way, for the 'official' work of Triumph of the Will is a much more distant work with respect to Adolf Hitler than the documentary Swastika, though they both use contemporaneous footage. 

The revelation at the time when Swastika was released was the newly found colour home movie footage from Eva Braun showing home life for Hitler and his friends in The Eagle's Nest. For such footage was coined the expression, "the banality of evil". [There's more...]

We see Hitler with children all around, including clips of him gathered around a decorated Christmas tree with children cavorting under it. We see Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, frolicking at the lake side, and tea parties with National Socialist dignitaries. There is a profoundly human moment when Hitler is seen consoling a grieving girl (I assume she had lost her father), patting her on the cheek, an action any of us could imagine doing.

Along with the film was a fascinating documentary with the film-makers looking back on the film and recounting the controversy it caused when it was released. While the film received many critical plaudits and glowing reviews, many people just couldn't accept what they were seeing. The film-makers told of screenings that had to be abandoned, of fist fights that broke out in cinemas, of bomb threats to cinemas showing the film. 

The home movie footage of Hitler did not appear to be the monster described in black and white terms as pure evil normally portrayed in film. This was a much more nuanced and difficult picture of Hitler. The simplistic view of him as evil incarnate teetered as film-goers watched him teasing others about wanting to watch Gone with the Wind. The reaction of people to being shown the reality of the man was and, I dare say, still is fascinating.

Many accused the film-makers of producing a film that was pro-Hitler. The director, Lutz Becker, found it hard to get work in Germany for years after making the film. As they said in the documentary, they approached making the film with the assumption that Hitler was evil and a monster, evil incarnate; they just assumed that everyone accepted that, so they didn't think it needed spelling out in the film, instead they sought to unravel some of the human side of Hitler to try to explore how it was possible for National Socialism to come to power. What was the appeal of Hitler?

I don't think anyone will ever understand fully the conjunction of events, emotions, despair and hope that provided the substrate on which Hitler could thrive within German society duing the 1930s. The question how it could happen will never be answered completely. But a film like Swastika is a powerful reminder that even in the most banal of people lies the power to do inconceivable evil to other people, while at the same time that person can recognise and console the grief in a young child.

Evil incarnate? It is, I have no doubt, more complicated than that.

While watching the documentary after the film this evening I couldn't help reflect on the way we use the word 'incarnation' in this Christmas season too. Jesus is God incarnate. Though the ironic thing is that just as people confronted with the image of a human Hitler turn away in confusion and disgust because this is not the preconceived image of Hitler that they have been taught, so many could not and still cannot accept that Jesus is the incarnation of God. The thought of God becoming human is as abhorrent and disturbing as a human face to Hitler. For some, God is holy and pure and must be kept at a distance from the muck and grime of real life.

And therein lies the extraordinary mystery and wonder of incarnation in Jesus. To this confused world that has seen both acts of the most glorious compassion and of incomprehensible evil comes God as one of us.  Through this babe, child and man Jesus we are confronted with all that is good and yet we have to do so in a messy world that can do no better in response than to nail him upon a cross while still a young man.

Yet God came to us and comes to us. If incarnate means "make real" then I suppose the big question as we come ever closer to celebrating Jesus' birth is "what do we make real in our lives?"

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