August 2022

Arts & Letters

The bureaucracy of evil: ‘The Conference’

By Shane Danielsen
The horror of Nazi officialdom is laid bare in Matti Geschonneck’s latest film

I moved to Berlin in 2007 and, needing work, spent my first few months in the city painting the guest rooms of a newly built hotel. The place in question was only a 10-minute walk from my apartment at Savignyplatz, and the job was strictly Schwarzarbeit: cash-in-hand at the end of every shift. When I knocked off, I would eat a late lunch at a Croatian restaurant nearby, and then catch a film at the Babylon or the Arsenal-kino. Later, as the seasons changed and the days grew warmer, I either lay reading in the Tiergarten or, if the weather was especially fine, would take the S-bahn to Nikolassee and go swimming in the green, still waters of the Große Wannsee.

That year-or-so of reading was an education for me. Irmgard Keun, Wolfgang Köppen, Anna Seghers, Ingeborg Bachmann, Wolfgang Hilbig… a whole world of letters opened up, one that sustains me to this day. But my primary memory of those afternoons is of lying in the warm sun, the water drying on my skin, and gazing across the lake to the Villa Marlier, the mansion where, one morning in January 1942, 15 of Hitler’s officers and government officials convened to ratify the Final Solution against Europe’s Jews.

Commissioned in 1914 by the pharmaceutical manufacturer Ernst Marlier, the building was designed by Paul Baumgarten, who, years later, would become one of the preferred architects of the Third Reich. (A go-along-to-get-along sort of fellow, Baumgartner rebuilt the Deutsche Oper and remodelled the Schillertheater and the Admiralspalast, taking care in each instance to include a private box – a so-called hunter’s lodge – reserved strictly for the Führer.)

Marlier was New Money, and eager to make his mark in Berlin society; the villa, Palladian and extravagant, was his statement of arrival. Unfortunately, he was also something of a charlatan – in 1905, the city’s Pharmaceutical Institute had declared most of his medicines fraudulent, and two years later the federal government banned the sale of Antipositin and Antineurasthin, two of his most successful products. Marlier fought the judgement, but his business never recovered. Eventually, beset by legal woes and mounting debts, he sold the villa to an industrialist by the name of Friedrich Minoux.

For a time, Minoux and his wife enjoyed the high life. Stridently right-wing, he entertained Italian fascisti and Nazi officials, and even joined the Society for the Study of Fascism, a Potsdam-based group that brought together high-ranking members of the military, titans of commerce and the loudest voices of the right-wing nationalist press. But eventually he too ran afoul of the authorities. Convicted of defrauding the Berlin Gasworks to the tune of 12 million Reichmarks, Minoux was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, and in November 1940 sold the villa – from his jail cell – to the Stiftung Nordhav, an SS-backed foundation run by Reinhard Heydrich, director of the RSHA, the Reich Security Main Office.

At this reference, the general reader might pause. Certainly, Heydrich lacks the name-recognition of Hitler’s principal henchmen: Goebbels, Göring, Himmler, Eichmann. Yet if it’s possible to nominate the worst of these monsters, he has a pretty good shot at that title, his evil reflected in the many nicknames that attached to him. The Butcher of Prague. The Hangman. The Blond Beast. The Man with the Iron Heart. He was tall – 6’3” – and fair, with lean, aristocratic features and chilly blue eyes, like the “master from Germany” in Celan’s Todesfuge. He spoke English, French and Russian, played the violin, and enjoyed fencing and detective novels. He was also, by most accounts, a sociopath, a ruthless, humourless man with few attachments. Other Nazis feared him. (After their first meeting, in 1932, Hitler told Himmler that Heydrich was “gifted, but also extremely dangerous”.) He devised the Einsatzgruppen, the paramilitary death squads responsible for the deaths of as many as two million civilians in German-occupied territories. And, at Himmler’s urging, he organised and ran the Wannsee Conference, and might therefore be said to have supervised the monstrous evil it unleashed upon the world.

The Conference (August 11) commemorates that fateful occasion. It’s directed by Matti Geschonneck, one of the best journeyman filmmakers in Germany, renowned for his meticulous craftsmanship and facility with actors. The story has been filmed once before, as Conspiracy for HBO in 2001, starring Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth. This version, however, is superior – and not only for the innate advantage of being in German. In dispensing with marquee names, it avoids the distraction of celebrity; what remains is the coolly precise reconstruction of a particular historical event.

Like his countryman and contemporary Dominik Graf, Geschonneck has worked mostly in television, amassing a lengthy filmography while largely escaping the attention of film festivals and international critics, though his previous theatrical feature, 2017’s In Times of Fading Light, did much to correct this oversight. Adapted from Eugen Ruge’s bestselling novel by the veteran German screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhasse, it not only captured, in granular detail, the dying days of East Germany, but gave Bruno Ganz his last great screen role.

Born in the former East, Geschonneck was trained at Moscow’s prestigious VKIG film school, and the influence of the Russians is evident in his technique. Here, the action is confined mostly to a single room, the large chamber where the meeting was held, and unfolds in a series of exchanges between the 15 men (plus one dutiful female secretary). The effect would be stagey were it not for the unshowy elegance of its director’s blocking, and Dirk Grau’s fluid but unobtrusive editing. There is no music throughout, and no broader scene-setting beyond a short introductory voiceover. Style, in other words, is entirely aligned with subject: the dry, procedural business of planning a genocide is matched by the sober, patient tone of the filmmaking that depicts it.

There are, of course, two ways to make a film about the Holocaust (leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether such a thing is desirable or even possible). The first is to report, ideally via the assembly of documentary evidence and the accrual of personal testimonies. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is the indispensable example of this approach, and arguably the greatest documentary in the history of the medium. The second, more problematic, is to depict, to take us into a staged recreation of the lagers in order to show their horrors at firsthand, either directly (Schindler’s List) or obliquely (László Nemes’ Son of Saul – to my mind, the superior film).

But Geschonneck and his screenwriters, Magnus Vattrodt and Paul Mommertz, strike an astute balance between the two, combining a reconstruction of events (based on the minutes of the meeting, discovered in the German National Archives in 1947) with a sort of referred disgust. We witness no atrocities onscreen, yet the film exhibits an extraordinary violence at the verbal level. Some of it is cloaked in the euphemistic language of officialdom – consideration is given as to how Jewish families might be “evacuated” without inspiring “irritation and enquiries” among the general population – but the rest is appropriately spiteful, vicious and crude. Asked whether these new racial laws would apply to Jewish citizens of other nations living on German territory, Martin Luther gives a pained smile: “We consider it a matter of courtesy to at least ask the governments whether we may include their Jewish citizens in our undertakings.” To which Eberhard Schöngarth retorts, “That’s like asking your neighbour if you may shovel away his manure as well.”

As the meeting proceeds, the topics for discussion grow darker still. What is the most efficient method of killing? A stickler for detail, state secretary Friedrich Kritzinger calculates that, based on the shooting of more than 33,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine outside Kyiv – carried out over three days, under what he calls “ideal conditions” – the process of eliminating Europe’s 11 million Jews would take more than 15 months, even with squads of German soldiers working continuously around the clock. Also, he adds, there is the morale of the executioners to consider.

Then there is the question of disposal. In Belarus, we learn, the ground is frozen two metres deep, and gasoline is in short supply; pits, therefore, cannot be dug for the bodies and nor can they be burned in sufficient quantities. “How do you remedy this?” demands Heinrich Müller of Rudolf Lange, the Riga-based head of the Sicherheitsdienst intelligence organisation.

Lange’s reply is all the more horrific for its brevity: “Stacking,” he says.

The dialogue therefore discards any moral dimension, and becomes instead a matter of pure logistics, a kind of infernal time and motion study. And in this way, without need for visual reconstructions (and the ethical dilemmas arising therefrom), the filmmakers and cast eloquently convey the extraordinary brutality and depravity of the Holocaust.

The Austrian actor Philipp Hochmair plays Heydrich, and initially I bristled at his performance: he seems slightly too avuncular, at times almost ingratiating. But every so often the mask slips and reveals the nihilistic void beneath. Before the meeting gets down to business, for example, he urges its participants to consider enjoying the amenities of the villa’s guest house, where they can stay for just five Reichsmarks a night. (“That’s quite an offer!”)

Even better are Jakob Diehl as Müller – sallow, contemptuous, his heavy-lidded eyes rolling with exasperation at the arse-covering equivocations of lawyers and bureaucrats – and another Austrian, Markus Schleinzer, as Otto Hofmann, chief of the SS Race and Settlement Main Office, and so enthusiastic about mass murder that he can scarcely restrain himself from offering suggestions to facilitate the process.

It’s now almost 80 years since the Nazis were defeated and, astonishingly, what was then considered unrepeatable now seems entirely plausible, if not yet likely; people appear to be forgetting. As fascism hauls itself up from the dirt, once more staking its claim as a legitimate political movement, this film – righteous as well as necessary, a howl of outrage that never raises its voice – should be required viewing in every church and classroom.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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