6 05 2013

Der_Untergang_-_Poster DOWNFALL (2004)

It is customary in many countries to watch WWII movies during the first week of May, thus commemorating the atrocities that took place now over 70 years ago.
In those movies, the tragedy is kept alive, being brought on screens – to preserve the memories, to remind of the warnings, to hope that the same never happens again.

In 2004, Germany produced DOWNFALL (Der Untergang), focusing on the life of a young woman who becomes Hitler’s secretary not long before Berlin is taken by the Russian Army.

The film is made in the best story telling tradition, with a typical and recognizable German attention to detail. Some scenes are artistically over-dramatized, to enhance the impact the tragedy had on people involved in it, and their descendants. Not an easy task, perhaps, but Germany did it again, and did it well. Is it the need to rehabilitate itself that drives German cinematography to the highest production quality when it comes to a WWII movie? Whatever the reason, due diligence was done in creating historically accurate and believable characters, and emotionally honest scenes that sort of imprint, visually, the statements of truth.

A special comment needs to be made on the brilliant performance of Bruno Ganz in the role of Adolf Hitler. Playing one of the most complex and dark villains in human history is not a walk in a park. Certainly, Bruno Ganz did well in studying his role and making sure the image he created is not stereotypical, but very much correct, exact to the point of body language and Hitler’s nervous tics. That is a very scary thing to do for a film actor – getting under the skin of such an evil figure, penetrating inside his mind, staying in this dark character for the duration of production, living with the after-taste. Undoubtedly, Ganz succeeded in bringing Hitler from the past closer to us today – and in that, there’s a certain element of horror, subtle, perhaps not immediately recognized, but apparent after a moment of contemplation. What we, normal people, like to believe, is that evil is not natural, not human and must, therefore, be explained by some sort of anomaly, disease, mental condition…. How many biographers dissected Hitler’s personality? How much literature has been written on his personalia? Well, that all becomes irrelevant when a living, breathing tirant is addressing the audience, comfortably sitting in soft chairs of cinema theaters. Bruno Ganz’s performance made a very powerful point – Hitler was a human being, sane and smart and if not for his monstrous side, he could have been a next door neighbor. Humanity shows in his patient attitude, his caring smile, his compassionate speech…. Only we know that that is the most incredible of lies. Realization that Hitler is one of us is definitely the toughest truth anyone could ever want to deal with.

DOWNFALL is also built on dialogues with evergreen and characteristic statements, designed to make us think, analyze, go deeper into the human soul. WWII is the ugliest of all human tragedies, it still affects generations, and its impact is still felt worldwide. When the film’s main character leaves falling Berlin behind, she does not depart empty handed – with her, she takes the emotional trauma of her nation, memories that will haunt her and pain that will trouble her for decades after.

We’re still dealing with consequences of WWII, with mysteries and cover-ups, seeking absolution and redemption, but the resolution has yet to come.

Watch DOWNFALL Trailer on Youtube

Copyright Camilla Stein ©2013. All rights reserved.



7 06 2012

On editing Khatyn

Several months ago Glagoslav Publications contacted me for the purpose of editing a novel they were planning to re-publish. When I saw the manuscript, my initial response was very emotional. In my hands was a book that was bigger than life – Khatyn, written by Ales Adamovich, translated into the English language and considered a cultural heritage item, sought after by many World War II researchers.

I remembered how a very long time ago I encountered this book for the very first time. Back then I read it without the full understanding of what the implications of the work were or could have been. Today, from the position of a certain life experience and knowledge, I feel compelled to relay my thoughts about editing Khatyn.

First of all, before I started, I had sought to obtain the original text so as to ensure accuracy of the translation. And from the first pages it became clear to me that the English translation, while being realistically accurate, had also been censored. Despite the brilliant work of the translators some thirty years ago – Glenys Kozlov, Frances Longman and Sharon McKee – some parts of the novel were removed or changed on purpose by the supervising authorities.

There’s no Iron Curtain today, the freedom of speech knows no limits, and a more sincere attitude towards historical truth has been re-visited. In other words, there’s no need to play hide and seek. Therefore, the new edition of Khatyn in the English language will have none of that. It will be a sober, truthful book, as intended by its author. In this renewed edition of the English translation, all missing parts have been restored.

Another important objective while editing was to preserve the feel of the Byelorussian language (the original language Khatyn was written in) and the English language of the time, all while keeping the text’s integrity and continuity intact, and maintaining the pace of the narration. For that, among other things, I decided to re-word names of people and places to phonetically reflect the Byelorussian language, and preserve such words in the English translation as ‘Alsatian’ which has been taken out of common use in the modern English language since early 1970s, but was a widely used term to identify a breed of a German shepherd dog in the 1940s and during the post-war years which is the time of the events in the novel.

It is my hope that I’ve done the job to the best of my ability, and should there be any errors related to my work – they will remain on my account.

Half way into the novel, my bravery began betraying me and I had to take a break. Khatyn is based on the war archives and witness testimonies of a few survivors who managed to escape destruction. Albeit written into a story of a fictional – although based on a real person – character of a partisan boy, documented testimonies of what was done to women and children, began to wear heavily on my nervous system. I don’t think I will ever be able to comprehend genocide; it’s just something that doesn’t fit into a sane brain of a regular person.

Yet, those responsible for Holocaust of Jews and genocide of Byelorussians along with other European nations that experienced Nazi ethnic cleansing, were no monsters at all. They were functionally normal people, believers in a certain ideal, a certain model of the world for them, and they tortured and killed for that. This was their job. And perhaps because they were humans, their crimes cause such agony to us when trying to understand the mechanics of human psyche and the condition of the soul in this…. There can never be justification and pardon for what they did.

Four years ago National Geographics released a documentary Scrapbooks from Hell – the Auschwitz Albums, based on the discovery of photographs from the concentration camp. The documentary ends with an exposition of the deceased as remodeled in an artwork of the memorial complex in Auschwitz, and the thought that we will never know what happened inside the gas chambers.

We won’t unless we read Khatyn.

No gas chambers, but barns, locked from the outside so no one would escape. No gas, but fire and smoke. Smoke suffocated lungs, fire extinguished flesh. Stuffed with human material, barns became graves just as gas chambers of Auschwitz did, and only a rare few people who dag wholes and climbed out through people’s bodies that were collapsing ablaze, hid in the mud among human debris so as not to be discovered; they then spoke of what their eyes had seen:

“I told my son, ‘Over the heads somehow, get out over the heads!I hoisted him up. I myself made my way down below, between the legs. And the dead kept falling on me. The dead were collapsing onto me, I could not breathe. Moving my shoulders—I was physically robust at the time—I began to crawl. Only as far as the threshold, then the roof fell in and the fire engulfed everyone!... I still crawled out, and a German ran over to me and smacked me in the teeth with his rifle butt—and gone were my teeth.”

Writer and journalist Ales Adamovich collected outnumbered witness records (just imagine – of one village only one elderly man managed to escape!) and told the story of the perished people, for us to know what had happened, and how that what had happened in Belarus in 1943 related to that what had happened in Auschwitz.

Khatyn is not written to scare away or to only shed tears. The novel is composed from a standpoint of a young person, and youth is daring, youth is dashing, youth falls in love and romanticizes everything, even war. Youth is courageous, youth is bright, and youth is ever present on Khatyn’s pages. Youth is the future, and the reason why Ales Adamovich did the work – Khatyn is written for the next generation to stand strong.

The book is ready. It will be officially released on June 22, 2012 to commemorate the Nazi attack on Belarus and the beginning of what is known there and in the entire post-Soviet region as the Great Patriotic War, a deadly national fight that lasted four years. Glagoslav Publications once again draws attention to this work of non-fictional fiction, unabridged and unadulterated in its current form, and to the records that had been sealed, and to the thoughts of the author who had witnessed the war before you and I were born.

Khatyn is a must know story, to never forget. Till this very day the story repeats itself elsewhere as brutal massacres shake the world once again, to awaken us from a dormant state, to see the condition of mankind and its desperate cry for change – for one Khatyn is too many.

Camilla Stein.

Copyright Camilla Stein ©2012. All rights reserved.




4 04 2011

“Dieses Gefühl, daß etwas nicht stimmte”

A Feeling That Something Wasn’t Right

From the first pages of this book you find yourself in Berlin in the middle of the World War II, looking through the eyes of a child, and seeing things that don’t seem to have any logic in them.

You are five years old, and things are rough because your country is under an obsessive tyranny of a paranoid, mad and evil man of whom you know only what is allowed to be said in public. Your nation is suffering from a propaganda machine and you, as a little girl, do not escape the trauma. And yet, you also notice things that make you wonder what exactly is going on. You feel that something else is transpiring. Only, as a child, you can’t be told. And you know, somewhere in your heart, not to ask.

Ilka’s language is laconic and vividly descriptive. She gives names to things that the little girl experiences in the years from 1940 till 1948, things that do not make sense to her at all.

At times, she acts on innocent impulses. Once, on a bus, she sees an old couple. She doesn’t know they are Jewish, but she wants to have same big yellow stars that she sees on their sleeves. Her mother is there to gag her before she alarms other passengers. Her mother is terrified.

Juvenile bunker in the book is a place where German children were taken every once in a while at night, for their protection from regular bombardments. It very much reminds a boot camp.

Ilka and her family flee Berlin to the country, to her grandparents. There, the children are sheltered along with other refugees, but they also hear the war’s echo and live through poverty, disease, hunger, their mother’s near insanity and many dangers and losses.

If you ever wondered what it was like for German children and their families under the Nazi rule, this book is for you. In it you will find details that complete the picture and make you see that other side. These details, rendered through a child’s perception, will remind you of what you as an adult know about that war and often this reminder will be shocking. The little girl in the book is an insider witness to the war. Because of her innocence, her narration is not contaminated with pre-conceived ideas.

Ilka von Zeppelin made her professional career in psychology and wrote a number of books on the subject, and she waited 60 years to tell her own story. If you read in German or Dutch, this book is available under the following titles: Dieses Gefühl, daß etwas nicht stimmte (Ger.), Het gevoel dat er iets niet klopte (Ned.) and let us hope the English translation will follow soon, along with others. The memories in this book are worth being shared with the entire world.

 Copyright Camilla Stein ©2011. All rights reserved.

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