Monday, January 16, 2012

Vanity and Despair

So I was so absorbed by Downfall, the 2004 Hitler's bunker movie and father of the father of internet memes, that I subscribed to London Review of Books just to read this amazing review by Bee Wilson of a new biography of Eva Braun.

Before watching Downfall, I hadn't thought of Braun as much more than a Woody Allen punch line. As Wilson tells it, she was a throughly apolitical person, enamored with Hitler from their initial meeting when she was seventeen. She took endless photos of their life together, and mostly wanted the same things any younger mistress of a powerful man might want: more time, more attention, nice clothes and nice parties. As Wilson notes, she didn't fit the Nazi's propaganda of the selfless self-sacrificing wife and mother, but her apparent sentimentality and complete lack of self-reflection make her very recognizable. How different is gleefully cheering for your man and clinging relentlessly to the idea of your relationship, with all the photos to prove it happened, from being any kind of functionary? Sentimentality is the ideology, just like the bureaucracy was for Arendt.

Looking at the reviews of Downfall it was funny to see echoes of the tired debates about whether or not art should "humanize" Hitler or other Nazis to help us understand "how such things happen," and whether viewers need to be reminded that the Nazis being portrayed were really, really bad people. The whole thing is particularly funny when film critics take this on, as if any three hour film could "explain" anything. Shoah is nine and a half hours and it only works because it sticks to its own dictum to describe rather than to explain. Anyways, Arendt had the last word on this a long time ago.

"Vanity and despair" was a phrase Robin Morgan once used to describe the dominant subjective conditions of patriarchy. Reading about Braun is particularly unnerving because there's so much vanity and not enough despair, at least not until the bunker. I didn't know before seeing the film that they got married 36 hours before they killed themselves together. Guess the apocalypse is one way to get a commitment. It makes me think of the end of Shaun of the Dead, when the main character laments having to kill his zombified mother, best friend and girlfriend in the same day. "What makes me think I'm taking you back?" the on-again off-again girlfriend asks. "You don't want to die single, do you?" he answers. Wilson ends her review by noting that she may have also been trying to persuade him to have children, posing him for pictures with the children who came to call. But charm and sentiment only got her so far.

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