Blind, but Now Can See

The confessions of Hitler's secretary.

At first glance the title seems absurd: a sick joke, a comic sketch that Mel Brooks gave up on. Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, the zany adventures of a working girl in the Third Reich. “First he invades Poland, now he’s chasing me arount de desk. Mein Gott, vot a horny Führer!” Hotsy-totsy, a brand-new Nazi.

But then the film begins, and we settle in on her face. There’s nothing else on the screen but her face. A composed, proper German bourgeois woman of 81 well-kept years, earnest and dignified. She has something on her mind, a burden she wants to be rid of, a soul-searching, a confession. Her name is Traudl Junge, and she looks familiar. Of course, we remember her from Thames Television’s 1973-74 TV documentary series, The World at War. She was in the bunker with Hitler and Eva Braun in 1945 when Russian artillery was pounding Berlin to dust and the cyanide pills were handed out; the Twilight of the Gods. Junge took down Hitler’s last will; drank with the monsters in their lair; babysat the poor Goebbels children before their parents poisoned them. She has a story to tell, and the memories are killing her.

Why should we care what this old German woman thinks? Who is she to disturb our notions of good and evil? In the grand scheme of things, she was more of a dress extra than a supporting player. Her notoriety seems to be that she was the last of them, the only one left to have broken bread with Adolf Hitler, the most hideous fiend of the 20th century — architect of hatred and aggression, sixty years after the fact the man we can never get enough of. Hitler endlessly repels and fascinates us, but what are we to make of Traudl Junge, who took dictation from him and did his filing?

That’s the sort of question that bothered filmmaker André Heller, a multimedia conceptual artist from Vienna who nevertheless assembled a team — documentary cameraman Othmar Schmiderer, editor Daniel Pöhacker — to record Junge’s oral history, yet another sidebar to the biggest news story of the last century. Heller is a Jew. In the press notes he describes how his father, a WWII refugee from the Nazis, became an opium addict because of his wartime experiences. And like Hitler, Heller is an Austrian, these days recoiling from the recent right-wing resurgence in that country.

Heller and his crew shot ten hours of interviews with Junge in her Munich home and boiled that down to ninety minutes. As a historical document, the film really tells us very little that is not already known about the inner workings of the Third Reich and the story of WWII. Instead, its considerable power, a melancholy one, is as a portrait of an ordinary working-class woman who, quite by chance, fell into bed with some of history’s greatest criminals and lived to tell the tale, but ended up hating herself.

Traudl Humps, from Bavaria, was a 22-year-old working in a government office in Berlin in 1942 when she entered a typing contest. The next thing she knew, she was a member of Hitler’s personal office staff. Her work took her to the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s field headquarters in East Prussia (where he was injured in the bombing attempt on his life by disillusioned German army officers); the Eagle’s Nest villa in the Alps near Berchtesgaden; and eventually to the grim confines of the bunker, where the increasingly delusionary top Nazis sat drinking cups of tea, waiting for the end. Junge observed all the well-known private habits of her boss: his trouble with indigestion (Hitler was a vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank, but who loved sweets); his love for his dog, Blondi, and his mistress, the “hysterically cheerful” Braun, not necessarily in that order; his wild mood swings and the increasing air of unreality when the war turned against Germany after Stalingrad.

We’ve seen these old members of the Master Race testify before. They never knew anything about the Jews. They condemn Hitler. They were only trying to get by, like everyone else. Junge says the same things, and yet somehow we believe her more than, say, an unrepentant Nazi careerist like Leni Riefenstahl. In Junge’s estimation, Hitler “manipulated the conscience of the German people.” Even though she confesses Hitler was a father figure to her, Junge notes that “He didn’t think in human dimensions. Humanity was never of any importance to him. He couldn’t imagine a person could have other good qualities than a flawless physical beauty.” Further, “He really didn’t know much about women at all.” Confined beneath the eleven meters of concrete in the bunker, Hitler dictated his political testament to Junge. She was hoping for some act of contrition from the former Roman Catholic altar boy, but instead the statement was “all the old phrases, ‘The Jews are to blame,’ and so forth.” Hitler washed his hands of the followers of the Thousand-Year Reich: “The German people were not ready for their mission, so they must perish.” Very Wagnerian. Junge admits to a very specific feeling of betrayal at hearing this: “I felt such hatred for Hitler because he had abandoned us, a very personal hatred.” In The World at War, Junge likens that type of hatred to a falling-out among gangsters, and she considers herself a member of the gang.

In the end, what distinguishes Traudl Junge from the other old Nazis — beside the fact that she never was a member of the National Socialist party — is her avowed pity for a contemporary of hers, Sophie Scholl. Scholl and a few of her fellow university students in Munich formed the “White Rose” society to protest against the war and distribute anti-Nazi leaflets, but in 1943 they were caught by the Gestapo, tried, and hanged all in one day. Evidently Scholl’s conscientious example haunted Junge. She even quotes the martyred student: “It was no excuse to be young.” Junge herself is clearly out of excuses for her own complicity in the Nazi scheme, and it obviously pains her.

Throughout the film we see Junge, in Heller’s purposely unadorned tight camera setups, with no archival footage or trick graphics to break up the starkness, talking for the camera, then smoking a cigarette and listening to herself. Filmmaker Heller believes that Junge agreed to the documentary because she knew she was dying, and indeed she died in February 2002, shortly after finishing the film. Her final public words on her role — a role Bertolt Brecht might have appreciated — were: “I have finally let go of my story. Now I feel the world is letting go of me. I think now I’m beginning to forgive myself.” Blind Spot, a deceptively slender documentary that opens up enormous questions about guilt, forgiveness, and moral responsibility, is worth seeing. It will stay with you.

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