Film-Forward Review: [2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HIM]

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Written & Directed by: Malte Ludin.
Produced by: Iva Švarcová.
Director of Photography: Franz Lustig.
Edited by: Ludin & Švarcová.
Music: Werner Pirchner, Hakim Ludin & Jaroslav Nahovica.
Released by: The National Center for Jewish Film.
Language: German with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: Germany. 85 mins. Not Rated.

The first memories writer/director Malte Ludin pulls from his sisters in his “typical German story” is how they learned in 1947 that their father had just been executed for war crimes. Playing on Godard’s faux documentary 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her about a woman’s double life, Malte plumbs the fascinating duality of Hanns Ludin’s life and legacy, as a beloved father and husband still enshrined in family memory versus the loyal Nazi leader.

Malte narrates that, in deference to his mother, he didn’t start this exploration until after she died in 1997 at age 94, though two of his older siblings, who were the most haunted by their revered father, had already passed away. The reluctant, raw family interviews with his surviving three older sisters are so intense that a psychologist attended to counsel them and the crew.

The filmmaker reconstructs his parents’ youth and marriage with reminiscences, letters, photographs, and documents, including his father’s final handwritten plea to the Czechoslovakian court refusing guilt but asking for leniency on behalf of his family. He implies that his father selected his mother for her gracefully athletic Aryan looks and their tow-headed brood looks just like the propaganda images of Goebbels’ cherubic and ideologically pure family.

While the context of his father’s career is confusing to follow without reference to William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, this is an intimate look into how a disgruntled middle-class teenager develops into an agitator for the National Socialists within the German army. In the “Trunk of Sorrows,” as the filmmaker labels the chapter delving into his mother’s souvenirs, is the family scrapbook with photos of Hanns standing close to Hitler at Nazi rallies and audio recordings of his father’s galvanizing speeches as an organizer for the thuggish SA (Sturmabteilung) troops, the notorious Brown Shirts who helped muscle Hitler to power. Malte particularly tries to understand the fanaticism of a father who sees almost 100 of his closest colleagues murdered on “The Night of Long Knives,” the brutal purge of 1934, and still does not question his leader, not then or later. His mother, in a 1987 television interview supplemented with conversations Malte taped the year before her death, still takes considerable pride in having stiffened her husband's spine to persevere against despair and resentment.

One of the most emotion-packed sequences begins when Malte cajoles his sisters into recalling their charming, playful childhood when their bon vivant father was rewarded with a foreign service position. According to Malte, “The scene of my father’s crimes is where I was born” – the Ambassador’s residence in Bratislava (Pressberg), Slovakia. Intercut is Malte’s interview with the son of the Stern family, who just as vividly remembers being “cleansed” from that house in 1941 and hiding, terrorized, in a cow stall. The communiqués signed by his father, protests registered from Slovaks about atrocities, and most damning and shown in repeated close-up, the orders passed on for escalating deportations for the final liquidation of the Jewish community alternate with his family’s excuses. Malte then has a moving meeting with the poet Tuvia Rübner, whose family was deported to their deaths pursuant to those orders and survived only because his parents sent him alone to Palestine.

The director is understandably gentle in challenging his mother’s wartime justifications, even as he pushes her about his father helping a colleague cover up a murder or the first time she heard of Auschwitz. But he is forcefully incredulous with his sisters’ self-deluding rationalizations, which veer into hero worshipping fantasies that they have passed onto their children. Hanns Ludin’s grandchildren are certainly left with a lot to ponder on camera.

The subtitles are very frustrating for a non-German reader. Not only is there the usual white-on-white problem, but crucial documents are not translated, and the identifying labels of the speakers are not in English so one has to quickly infer the German words for nephew, sister, husband, etc. to keep the relationships straight.

The parallels to the fictional German family in the Israeli film Walk on Water are eerie, considering the ironies of who the filmmaker and a granddaughter marry, and we have seen before rationalizing interviews with elderly women Nazi supporters in films such as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s The Confessions of Winifred Wagner, Ray Müller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, and André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. The closest a single family has dealt so immediately with a tainted legacy may be Ross McElwee’s contemplation of his tobacco-growing family in Bright Leaves or in the book, Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball. But with this patriarch’s crimes echoing through history, his son’s clear-eyed evisceration of family– and by extension, societal – mythology is unique. Nora Lee Mandel
January 24, 2007



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