Friday, June 17, 2005


"No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices." -- Edward R. Murrow

Some critics objected to Director Oliver-Hirschbiegel’s new film, “Downfall,” a horrifying look at Hitler’s last days in the Berlin Bunker, because they felt that actor Bruno Ganz’ portrayal “humanized” Hitler. They’re right.

Ganz gave a magnificent performance, from tender moments stroking a child’s cheek, to spittle-flying rants about the Jews and Bolsheviks betraying his dream of a New Germany, to patting his beloved dog Blondi on the head shortly before having her poisoned. Human, indeed.

And that was the point the critics missed. Hitler was human. That’s what made him so deadly.

But the more important question the film repeatedly raised was this: Hitler was a dime a dozen. There will always be people like him-–charismatic ideologues filled with their own lethal brew of fear and hate and greed and god and lust for power. But such men are only dangerous because of the willingness of so many people to surrender their souls to them for . . . what?

How many points in Hitler’s strange career did people from all walks of life have a clear opportunity to say, No? Obviously, people like Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, and his hideous wife, Magda, had their own twisted magnetic evil that would be drawn to a man like Hitler.

Indeed, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film is Magda ordering up a sleeping potion for her six children then, when they were unconscious, one by one, with tender, loving mother-hands, slipping cyanide capsules between their lips because Mummy couldn’t imagine a future without the National Socialist Party.

Her willing enslavement was absolute and since her children had no meaning or existence outside her own twisted ego, they were expendable. While Magda was an extreme example, what can be said of all the rest? All of Hitler’s willing accomplices, from the merchant happily displaying Nazi flags next to new signs in his shop window saying, “No Jews Allowed,” to the seasoned battle generals sporting their Iron Crosses who had to have known where their orders would take the country, to all the friends and neighbors who stood by and did nothing while their friends and neighbors were rounded up and taken away, to all the citizens who said nothing, did nothing, turned away, did not know, did not want to know.

How easy it was to lead them to their downfall, how willingly they went to their Armageddon, and how cheaply their souls could be bought.

Souls for sale, cheap, is also a theme to be found in the new film, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” a documentary about Ken (“Kenny Boy”) Lay and the rise and fall of Enron. Like Hitler, Kenny Boy is also a dime a dozen.

But what about all those smart guys in the room with him? How and why was it possible for them to so easily betray everything honorable and decent and ethical, and for what? That “everybody” was doing it? That they wouldn’t get caught? (True enough. Kenny Boy has powerful friends in high places. He will never receive the justice he deserves.) That it was all just a game, when they had to have known that real people would bear very real consequences when this Ponzi scheme of theirs collapsed? Why did no one in the room say, No?

And that, of course, is the most disturbing question both these films ask: What explains the ease with which people allow themselves to be lied to, fooled, and willingly led astray? And how do we account for how simple it is to corrupt a whole society, silence all voices, turn black to white, facts to lies, and distort even the meaning of language itself.

“Shock and awe” sounds like a new thrill-ride at Magic Mountain, doesn’t it? Goebbels himself would approve. “Newspeak” makes it that much easier to turn away from what we’re really doing.

After all, it’s just a game, a thrill ride, everybody’s doing it. And since We the People don’t really want to know, since that might take some effort and force us to hold ourselves and our elected government to account, well, it’s so much easier just to go along without question, drink the Kool-Aide and keep quiet.

Which is why Germany was no anomaly and Enron was no exception and a democratic country can be lost in an eyeblink, its downfall spun on lies and sold cheap. It’s so easy. --Ann Calhoun, Los Osos, 5/25/05

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