PRINT January 2003


Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary

AS I SLID INTO MY SEAT at Alice Tully Hall for the New York Film Festival screening of Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, I noticed the auditorium was only one-third occupied. A man behind me remarked, “I guess this isn’t a big seller.” I wondered why anyone would expect that a documentary about an unknown Nazi factotum like Traudl Junge would sell out. Who wants to know about the intricacies and intimacies of Adolf Hitler’s daily schedule? Who cares what this heinous criminal ate for dinner, how he related to his girlfriend, or to his dog? More to the point, who could bear to witness this naive, amoral functionary who served Hitler as stenographer, typist, file clerk?

By the time the presenters of the film shuffled onto the stage, the theater was packed. Any doubts as to the public’s curiosity about the confessions of Hitler’s secretary were dispelled. Perhaps some of the attraction to this striking, if rather straightforward, documentary hinges on the reputation—the sheer bravura—of the Austrian artist, actor, producer, and impresario André Heller, who conceived and directed Blind Spot with documentary filmmaker Othmar Schmiderer. But one suspects that the heightened level of interest in this film is related to the recent eruption of new approaches to work about Hitler, Nazi perpetrators, and the aesthetics and culture of the Third Reich. That the New York Review of Books would give its critique of Joachim Fest’s recent biography of Albert Speer the jocular title “Hitler’s Pal” is one barometer of the postwar generations’ historical and emotional remove from the Nazi era. Another is the fact that a serious scholar, Frederic Spotts, would devote a book-length study to fascist aesthetics in his Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (Overlook, 2003). Last year, three exhibitions—“ Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics, and Hitler’s Early Years in Vienna, 1906–1913” (Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA, 2002), “Mémoire des Camps” (Hôtel de Sully, Paris, 2001), and “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” (The Jewish Museum, New York, 2002)—drew on this distance, and they elicited negative reactions. These and the harsh criticisms in response to both a planned CBS miniseries about Hitler’s formative years and a BBC program about Hitler the struggling artist reveal a still-staunch resistance to investigating areas of this history where moral operatives are neither black nor white. By the time this essay is published, we’ll likely have seen strong reactions to Max, a fiction film about a Jewish art dealer (John Cusack) who befriends and encourages the young artist Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). Likewise the voyeuristic situations projected in earlier film and literature, such as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler (1977) (in which, coincidentally, André Heller plays a leading role) or George Steiner’s novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. (1981), are morally convoluted and purposefully ambiguous. Heller takes no such liberties with Blind Spot.

Interest in individuals like Traudl Junge is part of the renewed attention to ordinary types involved in the dreadful drama of Nazi history. In this sense, Blind Spot relates to a recently televised History Channel documentary comprising interviews with Germans who attended Nazi military school. The current spotlight on these small-time perpetrators emerges after several decades of intensive focus on the Holocaust victims, for which Steven Spielberg’s ongoing oral history project, Survivors of the Shoah (1994–), serves as a paradigm. The urgent hunger for such testimony, whether recounted by victim or perpetrator, stems from the rapid loss of firsthand witnesses.

Schmiderer and Heller, an artist capable of Gesamtkunstwerke of the most complex and often disarming kind, stick close to their subject. The film seems more a document of an interview than a documentary. Together, the two filmmakers strive to create a movie that “renounces all forms of stylistic embellishment.” At first I was dismissive of this approach because it refuses any kind of transformative gesture. Yet I found the story absorbing. The editing is so tight that one becomes engrossed in this extraordinary moment in the life of a very ordinary woman. We see Junge, simply dressed, the sensible, grandmotherly figure posed in front of her library. A modernist floral painting and a modest figurative sculpture with fascist overtones sit on a shelf.

One moment we feel the pronounced agitation of the interviewee, the next her horrifying detachment. Sometimes Junge’s dialogue seems a confession, as if she needs to download the information before her demise. While Junge works hard to create a distance between herself and the time of her connection to Hitler, I felt her confusion. She tells of her life as Hitler’s personal secretary, working with him on his special train; at Berchtesgaden, his Bavarian residence; and in the Wolf’s Lair, his field headquarters in East Prussia. We hear how paternal Hitler was, how he took meals with his secretaries, how one could discern his Austrian twang, how he loved his dog Blondie, how interested he was in female beauty, how indifferent he was to female intellect. Junge describes the attempt on Hitler’s life on June 20, 1944, and how his staff pondered their fate and that of their country had the assassination been successful. The pace and sense of anxiety intensifies as Junge recounts the final days in the bunker, when Hitler dictated his political last will and testament to her and everyone inside carried poison in their pocket so as not to be taken alive.

Junge’s narration of life with Hitler is much more convincing than her description of her guilt and remorse. Would she really—as she claims in retrospect—have asked Hitler if he would gas himself should a drop of Jewish blood be found in his veins? Can one write history in the subjunctive? She talks about the burdens of her actions and her conscience. Heller and Schmiderer end the film by stopping Junge midsentence. This singular gesture affirms W.G. Sebald’s caveat about attempting to make sense of the senseless, and, with it, the filmmakers confirm the intractable failings of testimony and memory, especially those of the perpetrator.

Norman Kleeblatt is Susan and Elihu Rose Curator of Fine Arts at The Jewish Museum, New York.