I’m a frequent borrower from my local library, and a particular fan of their wide-ranging DVD collection. This week I found two documentaries that ended up — unintentionally — being a perfect pairing
The first is “Marlene” (1984, Kino Video), a documentary about the actress Marlene Dietrich. Made by the German actor Maximillian Schell, the film begins with the famously reclusive actress’s refusal — at the last minute — to allow her former co-star (Schell, from “Judgement at Nurenburg”) to actually film a series of interviews in her Paris apartment. Discouraged, but determined, Schell is able, at least, to record the conversations on tape, and then sets about coming up with a way to make a “moving picture” out of it all. Adding the device of a recreation of Dietrich’s apartment into the usual mix of archival film and photos, the dominant force of the film is Marlene’s voice. And in that voice you hear a personality limited by her austere German upbringing and her own brittle temperament.
The second documentary is: “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” (Sony Pictures Classics, 2002), A Film by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer. This film is the polar opposite of “Marlene”, in that it consists entirely of face-front filmed interviews with Traudl Junge, who was one of Adolph Hitlers secretaries and who, remarkably, survived the very last days with Hitler and his officers in the bunker in Berlin (Hitler dictated his final “political testament” to her before shooting himself). There is never so much as a cut-away from Junge’s face for the entire film. Sometimes she is shown watching (and listening to) previous interview footage of herself, adding in details or comments as they come to her mind. This is remarkable. I’ve never seen a documentary like it. But then, when you have such an articulate eyewitness to the kind of events that she is describing, who in their right mind would want to distract the viewer.
If you’ve seen the fine recent German film “Downfall”, then you know this woman’s story (she provided a great deal of the detail that was used in that film which is, in some ways, her story as well). But to be able to watch the real person’s eyes, face and hands as she speaks with such openness is a remarkable opportunity.
Both of these films are windows into Germany in the years leading up to, during and after World War 2. But they are also studies in contrast of the two subjects. Dietrich left Germany and, essentially, joined the U.S. Army during the war (she is beloved by WW2 vets for putting on shows for troops far nearer the front lines then Bob Hope ever dared to tread). When asked why, she says, matter of faculty, that it was a simple choice of good over evil. Trudly Junge, on the other hand, was “apolitical”, and itching for job in Berlin that would allow her to get out of her home town. It is only many years later (after walking past a monument to the German resistance fighter Sophie Scholl, about whom another recent film was made) that Trudl has an awakening to the fact that she, too, had choices.
In many ways, these are simple biographies of two human beings who happened to be swept up in great events that throw their individual characters into greater relief. You may find yourself getting a bit tired of Dietrich by the end, but “Marlene” is quietly building its power that pays off in the end. “Hitler’s Secretary” is riveting throughout, yet still manages to pack a punch in the end. I recommend them both.