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Crystal Downing

The Great Unwashed

Two contrasting movies on the Nazi era.

Awash in the sublime sights of Bavaria, I relished not only natural beauty but also the tidiness of quaint German towns. During my three-week visit, I never once saw junk in yards or litter on roads. It all seemed so wonderfully CLEAN! Even the public restrooms had toilet brushes with placards reminding users to clean up after themselves. In one such facility, my husband observed a young man bearing all the signs of cultural defiance: purple mohawk, piercings, black leather and chains. Upon exiting from the stall, however, the leather-clad lad suddenly stopped and turned, re-entering in order to clean the toilet with the state-provided brush.

When I mentioned this incident to an American running a German bed-and-breakfast, she grumbled about government restrictions and cultural pressures that dictated the color of paint on her house, the neatness of her yard, and even uniform log lengths in her woodpile. Lowering her voice she concluded, "Nazis still run things around here," as though to say "ethnic cleansing" was merely an extension of an obsession with tidiness. Though her remark did not fit my experience of the generously gracious Germans, I find it interesting that Germany has made it illegal to deny the historicity of the Holocaust, emphasizing, as it were, the need to come clean about its past.

Film has become part of that cleansing process, testifying to Holocaust horrors and heroes. Two films, Amen. (2002) and Valkyrie (2008), build upon historical records of the German Resistance, focusing on military officers who tried to cleanse Germany of the leader to whom they had sworn allegiance: Adolf Hitler.

Amen. makes explicit the ambiguities of cleansing. Its real-life protagonist, an ss Officer named Kurt Gerstein, served the Nazi cause by developing a chemical that could purify even the most fetid water, making it potable for soldiers on the battlefield. A scene in which Gerstein drinks treated ditch water before the amazed eyes of German compatriots comments ironically ...

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