THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE. (1984) A CHILLING NAZI VISION REVIEWED BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

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THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE. (1984) BASED ON TRUE EVENTS. WRITTEN BY PAUL MOMMERTZ. DIRECTED BY HEINZ SCHIRK. STARRING DIETRICH MATTAUSCH AND GERD BÖCKMANN.

REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

This is one of the best, if the absolute grimmest, of all the Nazi films I’ve ever seen. It’s as good as DOWNFALL (DER UNTERGANG), the gripping story of Hitler’s last days in the bunker under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, while the Russian army were less than a few miles away and their bombs and explosions shook every building in Berlin to its foundations.

It’s so realistic, THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE, that every time I watch it I feel like I’m watching a piece of found footage, that this is what actually happened, that this is exactly what happened when some of the Nazis’ top personnel got together at this luxurious villa in Wannsee in Berlin to discuss the finer details of what came to be known as ‘The Final Solution’ to the so-called ‘Jewish Question.’

Only one copy of the ‘minutes’ of the meeting survived the war, and it is from this that the dialogue is derived. The dialogue is of necessity fictionalised, but it comes from an extremely true place, as it were.

The purpose of the meeting was threefold: to thrash out the details of the Final Solution; to ensure the co-operation of the various Nazi government departments, who were represented at the meeting, in the carrying out of the Final Solution; and, finally, to decide who or what constituted a Jew, and therefore should be included in the Final Solution.

The meeting, which had been delayed a bit by America’s entry into the war after Pearl Harbour happened in December 1941, took place at the beautiful private villa in Berlin at the behest of the Reichsfuhrer-SS, otherwise known as Heinrich Himmler, one of Hitler’s ‘bestest’ men.

It was Hitler’s wish that the German Reich and all her occupied territories should be made ‘Juden-frei’ or ‘free of Jews,’ and Hitler’s wish was ‘Heini’s’ command. Hitler rarely troubled himself with the finer details of any of his policies, unless it was for the grandiose pie-in-the-sky model cities and buildings he intended to create after the war, which of course never happened. There was no ‘after the war’ for Hitler.

But the worse things became for Germany in the war, the more he immersed himself in these blueprints for mad projects that would never get done. It was obviously his chosen form of escapism, something in which he could retreat when the going got tough.

The onerous tasks pertaining to the Final Solution were left to his top men, who in turn sub-delegated the job to underlings and so on and so on until the job was done. Hitler and Himmler both envisioned a kind of ‘combing’ movement that ‘swept’ Europe ‘clean’ of Jews from left to right and vice versa, the way you’d go through a child’s hair with a fine-tooth comb during an epidemic of what we used to call ‘unwelcome visitors.’

Himmler delegated the job of making Germany and her occupied territories ‘Juden-frei’ to his pet toady, Reinhard Heydrich, tall, blonde, perfectly ‘Aryan’-looking and so cold he’d make the icy winds that blew around the glacier that proved the Titanic’s downfall feel like a gentle Caribbean breeze. The actor who portrays him here is so like I imagine the real Heydrich to be that it’s actually scary. No, scratch that. It’s terrifying.

The Nazis invited to this conference sit around a long polished table in their highly decorated uniforms, gorging themselves on delicious finger food, fine cigars and fancy cognacs while they hammer out the details of the Final Solution. As the star-struck secretaries in the reception areas outside the conference rooms put it, ‘there’s a lot of top brass here today.’

Hitler gets ‘heiled’ more times than you can shake a stick at. Facts and figures are thrown around while the various personnel report to Heydrich how ‘Juden-frei’ the areas under their personal responsibility have become or are hoped/intended to become in the near future.

Maps of occupied Europe are displayed to the room, with little coffins on them indicating the places where large numbers of Jews have already been killed. It’s shocking to the viewer, these little coffins, but the attendees don’t even bat an eyelid. The coffins are only used to represent Jews, after all, and not real people.

No-one wants to be found wanting in the presence of ‘Heini’s’ little pet, Reinhard Heydrich, regarded by many historians as one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Hitler dubbed Heydrich ‘the man with the iron heart.’ In other words, he has a swinging brick where the command central of his emotions and feelings is meant to be.

It is openly admitted here amongst these men, maybe for the first time, that the Jews whom they intend to send to ‘labour camps in the East’ are in fact destined for the dreaded ‘special treatment’ or ‘sonderbehandlung’ in the occupied areas of Poland known as ‘the General Government.’

No words stronger than this ‘sonderbehandlung’ will ever be put down on paper for fear that they might incriminate themselves, but here, amongst themselves, it is safe to admit such things out loud, even in the presence of the female secretary who’s taking the minutes and the waiters who serve them with their cognacs and canapés. Those cocky gits. The top brass, I mean, not the waiters.

The process of getting the Jews to the ‘labour camps in the East’ is discussed step-by-step with cold practicality. ‘Israel’ and ‘Sarah,’ their derogatory names for the male and female Jew, will obediently sign over their property to the Reich and hand the keys of their dwelling(s) over to the designated Nazi officials.

Then, carrying one suitcase and the paltry sum of no more than fifty marks- which will all be stolen from them at their destination anyway- they will board a train (most likely a cattle train) to ‘the East’ in a quiet and orderly fashion.

The destination will be one or other of the various concentration camps (Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Mauthausen, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Belzec) and, at the end of the road, they’ll find the gas chambers and crematoria waiting silently for them.

Gas? Some of the men around the table, one in particular, pale a little at the mention of the gas. Either they didn’t know about it prior to today, or it just slightly offends their delicate, fastidious sensibilities to be hearing such nitty-gritty details.

Some people, the so-called ‘mental defectives’ and the disabled mostly, have already been put to death by means of travelling vans into which they would be piled and then killed by exhaust pipe, in much the same way that a person would commit suicide by sitting in their car with the exhaust running.

People grew to know in time that these vans heralded death for some. This is one way of doing it. But the downside of this method is that you can only kill a handful of people at a time. It’s slow and cumbersome, too slow and cumbersome.

Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz whose post-war memoirs provide us with one of our most valuable documents of World War Two, gets a mention here then. He apparently ‘swears by Zyklon B,’ the pellets of insecticide that have been proven capable of murdering large numbers of people at a time.

The Jews are ushered into an ‘undressing room,’ where they are told to remember where they put their stuff for afterwards. This lulls them into a false sense of security, making them think that there will be an ‘afterwards.’

Once they are locked securely into the gas chambers, an SS man- it was always an SS man- will nip up sharpish onto the roof of the building and drop the pellets of Zyklon B in through an opening.

It could take several minutes for the gas to take full effect and the hundreds- or thousands- of people inside the room to die. There could be shouting and screaming for several minutes after the doors are locked. Victims could be observed through a peephole in the door.

Then the Sonderkommando, the concentration camp prisoners tasked with doing this horrible, horrible job that the SS themselves didn’t want, enter the room with gas-masks on to cart the bodies off to the nearby crematorium for burning.

The sights that would await them when those doors were opened were truly terrible. With blood, faeces and urine dripping from every orifice and their heads sometimes twisted on backwards with the pain and fear of what they’d undergone, the corpses were shocking to behold. Some members of the Sonderkommando might have to take pliers and remove the gold teeth from the mouths of corpses, surely the job straight from the jaws of hell itself.

Every so often, the members of the Sonderkommando would be themselves murdered and replaced by other prisoners. They were never left alive for long. The SS didn’t want people who knew so many of their grisly secrets to be walking around free, free to tell everyone they met about what they’d witnessed and experienced in the death camps.

At the conference, a lot of time is spent debating the ‘half-Jews’ and ‘quarter-Jews,’ and how exactly you determine whether someone is one or the other and how you then treat them. Previously, Jews married to Aryans or who had been married to Aryans but were now widowed had been exempt from ‘Sonderbehandlung,’ but now there’s talk of a clean sweep, of cutting all the ‘bacteria’ out of the diseased organism for good, for the good of the organism. This analogy from the plant world comes courtesy of one Adolf Hitler, by the way. Have you read MEIN KAMPF yet? Great cure for insomnia.

It’s a bit like a privileged gentleman’s club, this conference. Whenever any Nazi official proposes something particularly bloodthirsty for the Jews, most of the others rattle and bang the table with their fists and make approving, ‘hear, hear’- type noises, while swilling their pricey cognacs and smoking their fat cigars.

‘Why should our chaps die at the front while Israel and Sarah swan off to a holiday resort?’ one official says of the concentration camps. Well, Israel and Sarah will soon know the real meaning of work, the Nazis say, as the plan for any able-bodied Jews is forced labour and for them to be worked literally to death.

Another man is worried about whether he will lose his Jews- his free labour, he means- to the camps, as he needs them for his armaments factories. Why import and pay foreign workers, he says, when you can get the Jews for nothing? He’s delighted to hear that he can hold onto his slaves, at least for now.

The main player here, even more than Heydrich himself, who shamelessly chats up the pretty secretary (What’s WRONG with her, by the way? Has she no womanly feelings of compassion for the victims of genocide under discussion, or is she only interested in landing herself a man, preferably a high-ranking Nazi officer?) in front of everyone present and who expects a ripple of sycophantic laughter every time he cracks a little joke, is probably Adolf Eichmann. He’s the ‘numbers’ man and Heydrich’s so-called ‘Jew specialist’ or ‘Jew expert.’

He’s the un-extraordinary ‘petty bureacrat’ or pen-pusher about whom German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt made her remarks referring to ‘the banality of evil.’ This was while Eichmann was on trial for war crimes in Israel in 1961, after being snatched from Buenos Aires by the Israeli group Mossad. He’d been hiding in South America since the war, having escaped from Europe via the ‘ratlines’ used by escaping Nazis for that exact purpose.

‘I was only a tiny cog in the Nazi killing machine,’ was his catch-cry during his trial, after which he was hanged for his crimes. This was how he liked to minimise his actions but we know that he attended this milestone conference. We know that he was one of the main Nazis responsible for organising the Jews onto those cattle trains that would take them to those mythical ‘labour camps in the East.’

A monster doesn’t always have to look like a monster, and be actually caught in the act of grinding children’s bones to make his bread, to have been responsible for the atrocities with which he’s charged. Eichmann is certainly a case in point for this particular argument.

He’s the Nazi who infamously said that when he died, he’d jump into the pit of hell with glee, happy in the knowledge that he had put six million Jews down there with him. Here, he’s certainly a fussy little bureaucrat, kissing Heydrich’s butt and pulling figures out of his sleeves and demonstrating his intimate knowledge of ‘The Jewish Question.’

I just want to bring one more conference attendee to your attention. There’s a portly, jowly official called Dr. (he has a degree in law) Rudolf Lange present, a young enough Nazi who was largely responsible for Latvia’s Holocaust. He’s another one who likes to get a laugh for his actions.

He falls asleep at one point, probably rendered dozey by all the cognac he downs at the meeting, and glories in the laugh this generates amongst his colleagues. To fall asleep while the details of the deaths of millions of people are being worked out seems irreverent, to say the least.

He’s brought his beloved German shepherd dog Hasso along to the conference with him because Hasso ‘needs a vacation.’ The inference here is that the dog is treated better than the Jews under discussion at the conference. He’s a great dog also, apparently, for ‘sniffing out Jews’ from their hiding places ‘in the latrines’ or ‘up chimneys.’ The film ends with Lange throwing a ball or a stick for the dog.

The whole film is an exercise in ‘show, not tell.’ The meeting unfolds in real time and a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the viewer is assumed. No character sits down and says to his colleagues: ‘Now, folks, as we all know, this is World War Two and Germany is about to start losing the war in a big way,’ and so on.

The discussion is all highly practical, to the point and cold and calculating, and Heydrich advises the report-givers to ‘be brief’ as his time is valuable and his cool blonde Aryan presence is required elsewhere.

The pragmatic and bureaucratic way in which the subject is gone over is frightening. If Eichmann typified for Hannah Arendt ‘the banality of evil,’ then surely this conference taken as a whole is an example of the pettifogging, bureaucratic mind-numbing and also terrifying minutiae of evil. Could this type of thing ever happen again? Well, all it takes is for good men to do nothing…

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

http://sexysandieblog.wordpress.com

http://serenaharker.wordpress.com

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

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HARD TIMES BY CHARLES DICKENS. (1854) REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

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HARD TIMES BY CHARLES DICKENS. (1854)

A BOOK REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©

I loved this book when I had to study it in school, just like I loved every other book of Dickens’s when I read it. Does that make me unusual, being a female person who likes Dickens and now reads him voluntarily, for pleasure, and not just because I have to answer exam questions on him? I don’t know, all I know is that I dig him. His understanding of the social mores of his day are really quite extraordinary.

Not only that though, but he’s endlessly funny as well, especially when it comes to depicting characters who have a highly inflated sense of their own importance. Characters like Mr. Bumble, the ‘porochial’ Beadle in OLIVER TWIST, which I read for Christmas this year, or Mr. Bounderby in HARD TIMES. We’ll get to him- old Bounders- in a minute, lol.

First let me introduce you to a Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, one of the leading lights not only of HARD TIMES, but also of Coketown, the grim, smog-wreathed fictional industrial town in Victorian England where the novel is set. Here’s what Dickens says about Mr. Gradgrind:

‘Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all suppositious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind- no, Sir!’

It’s important to understand how pragmatically practical, hard, cold and fact-based is Mr. Gradgrind’s belief system, or else nothing that follows will make sense. He eschews all fun and fancy, supposition and wonder, and he brings up his two eldest children, Louisa and Tom, under the yoke of the same harsh belief system.

They may privately long for some fun and fancy, but they know better, much better than to ask for it. They would only be directed straight back to their studies of fact-based sciences and mathematics. They are steeped in ‘ologies,’ you might say. Biology and bacteriology and etymology and every other ‘ology’ you might care to name.

‘Run along and be something-ological directly,’ their invalid mother tells them when they become too tiresome. Mrs. Gradgrind, who recedes into her bundle of shawls when life becomes too much for her (as it frequently does), is completely unable to cope with or comprehend her husband’s strict belief system.

It goes over her head, she is baffled by it. She worries all the time, perhaps, that she ‘will never hear the last of it.’ It’s not until the very end of her days that she has the courage to question even slightly the wisdom of the fact-based upbringing that was forced upon her children by their father. If only she’d acquired the courage sooner…!

The aforementioned Mr. Bounderby- Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, by Jove!- is the best friend of Mr. Gradgrind’s and a prominent local landowner and business-owner in Coketown to boot. Abandoned by his mother at an early age, a fact he never tires of telling people, he was dragged up by the bootstraps by a harsh and uncompromising Life, which Life has made him The Man He Is Today.

Namely, made of stern stuff and not expecting to be fed venison with a gold spoon every five minutes, as is, apparently, the dearest, most heartfelt wish of the Coketown ‘Hands,’ the nameless, faceless underlings who run his textile mills and other businesses for him.

He’s a braggart and a boaster and a bluffer who makes a constant pretence of a humility he doesn’t really feel. He has his eye on Louisa Gradgrind, even though he’s a good thirty years older than her. When Mr. Gradgrind tells Louisa that she must take Bounderby for a husband, she shrugs and says why not? What does it matter, when nothing else does?

A life without fun, laughter, love and life in it is barely worth living so why not? Why not marry old Bounderby, when one rubbish life experience is exactly the equal of another? As I don’t care either way, she tells her father, I might as well do what you ask. The marriage takes place.

Mrs. Sparsit, an ancient, Roman-nosed lady distantly related to ‘the quality,’ a fact of which neither she nor Mr. Bounderby ever tire of reminding people, is Josiah Bounderby’s house-keeper. She has her own matrimonial plans in relation to Mr. Bounderby, and is therefore immeasurably pissed off when he marries the much younger and prettier Louisa Gradgrind.

Spiteful old Mrs. Sparsit is thrilled skinny- well, maybe not skinny, never that!- when a dastardly young hound by the name of James Harthouse starts work with Mr. Bounderby and immediately sets his cap at Louisa.

Mrs. Sparsit is a nasty, prying old biddy who’d like nothing more than to see Louisa brought low and she, Mrs. Sparsit, installed in the younger woman’s place as mistress of the Bounderby house and estate.

Louisa by now is nearly dead inside emotionally, having had all and any finer feelings- or even attempts at same- hammered out of her, first by her father and then by her dreadful posturing husband, with his endless fake humility and making out loudly and brashly that he’s a self-made man who dragged himself up out of the gutters by the thumbnails.

Bored out of his selfish, foppish skull, James Harthouse decides that the thing he wants most in the world is to see Louisa smile at him the way she does at her brother Tom, whom she adores and who also works for Mr. Bounderby. Not in the same capacity as the Coketown ‘Hands,’ of course, who toil in the mills every day like the workers from Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, but in a more official, gentlemanly capacity.

Harthouse can’t stand Tom, incidentally. He calls him ‘the whelp’ and does nothing to dissuade him from descending ever further into a terrible maelstrom of gambling debts that will ultimately be the ruination of him. Harthouse is a pretty much disreputable character.

If he persists in his affair with Louisa Bounderby, a married woman, however unhappily, she’ll be ruined in the eyes of society forever. (You might think that that’s not a big deal nowadays but it was back then, especially for women.) And for what? Because this little jackanapes James Harthouse was bored and wanted a challenge? The bastard…!

Sissy Jupe, the young orphaned girl taken in by Mr. Gradgrind and initially raised according to that gentleman’s beloved ‘system,’ is the one ray of light in the grey and gloomy House Of Gradgrind.

Born and bred in a travelling horse-riding circus, Sissy is a girl of many unusual qualities. She even manages to bring out the one solitary teensy-weensy shred of conscience in James Harthouse, if you can believe that, and is of immeasurable help to Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind and the poor lost Louisa.

You see, Thomas Gradgrind’s ‘system’ doesn’t have any more effect on Sissy than water off a duck’s back, luckily for the Gradgrinds. It doesn’t ‘take’ with her, you see, and because of that she’s able to lead at least three Gradgrinds, gently and delicately and so as not to seem like she’s leading them at all, out of the murky darkness of the ‘system’ and into the light.

Mithter Thleary With A Pronounced Lithp, if you please, is the owner and ringmaster of Thleary’s Travelling Thircus, and a great friend to Sissy and the Gradgrinds too, in the end. If this book had been filmed in the 1940s or the 1950s, the lovely cuddly character actor Miles Malleson would have been the perfect choice to play him.

Mr. Sleary puts one of Dickens’s main messages in a pretty neat nutshell. People need fun, and laughs and entertainment. They can’t be ‘allus a-working.’ And people are neither facts nor statistics, either, they’re people. 

How right he is. A happy, rested employee is a good employee. Mr. Sleary, for all his lack of any formal education, is streets ahead of the socially ‘superior’ Mr. Gradgrind in this particular matter.

Mr. Gradgrind isn’t a bad man at all, mind you, just severely misguided. When his beloved ‘system’ of facts and statistics collapses and he sees the results of it in his criminal son Tom and his broken daughter Louisa, he himself becomes a broken man.

I do love, however, when Tom, lately turned bank-robber and fugitive from the law, throws his father’s words back at him at the end. In a given period, x number of employees will steal from their employers. This being the case, when Tom himself turns round and steals from his employer, namely Mr. Bounderby, how can it be Tom’s fault?

The statistics speak the truth, don’t they? How can Tom help it if he’s just another statistic? This is one of the statistics once so beloved of Mr. Gradgrind, Superintendent of the School Board and responsible for filling so many little minds with the facts he craves. One gets the feeling that this grievously wounded gentleman won’t be relying on facts and statistics for solace and comfort in the future again.

It’s also hard on Mr, Gradgrind when he is confronted, in the form of Bitzer, ‘the light porter,’ with the very evidence of his ‘system-in-action.’ Have you no heart, he appeals to Bitzer, who is only too glad to rattle off the biological facts that go to prove that, undeniably present in his chest cavern, there beats the physical organ known as ‘the heart’ without which he wouldn’t be breathing and walking and talking and a-taking of ‘Young Tom’ here into custody, and surely Mr. Gradgrind, that well-known lover of facts, is aware of such a fact-based thing…?

Dickens brings in the Unions a lot as well and the poor wages and poor housing conditions of the Coketown ‘Hands,’ and indeed, their conditions are terrible. Unfortunately, however, I failed to like his main working-class hero, Stephen Blackpool, whose accent was drawn as being so thick that I could barely decipher it at times.

Plus he was a miserable git as well. So his wife’s an alcoholic miscreant who won’t give him the divorce he needs to marry Rachael, the real love of his life. Big whoop! We all have our troubles, our crosses to bear. Go out, have a few pints with friends and loosen up a bit. It’s not the end of the world.

I also disliked his mopey martyr of a girlfriend Rachael. Although I felt thorry- oops, I mean sorry!- for them both (ith thurprithingly hard to thop lithping once you thart!), I was much more interested in the actions and activities of the swells. The toffs. The big nobs. The gentry. The, as the Artful Dodger would surely put it, ‘Quali’y.’

Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit are my favourite characters, and both long overdue for a come-uppance. How hard are the mighty fallen and all that. Dickens handles these come-uppances beautifully. Good on ya, Charlie. You da bomb.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO

You can contact Sandra at:

https://www.facebook.com/SandraHarrisPureFilthPoetry

https://sandrafirstruleoffilmclubharris.wordpress.com

http://sexysandieblog.wordpress.com

http://serenaharker.wordpress.com

sandrasandraharris@gmail.com

https://twitter.com/SandraAuthor