What is the role of the artist in dealing with the dark side of humanity? How do we portray evil?
My husband and I recently watched Downfall (Der Untergang), which counterpoints the horrific shelling of the undefended citizens of Berlin with the slow disintegration of the Nazi regime and of Hitler himself. We were glued to the screen, unable to push the pause button and eat dinner. This film by Oliver Hirschbiegel gives a very personal and devastating account of the last days of the Third Reich. So personal that many Germans were uncomfortable when it debuted in theaters in 2004, arguing that giving Hitler humanity and portraying any Nazi with sympathetic traits amounted to promoting Nazism.
The cast is wonderful, especially veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as Hitler. If you have seen any of the countless YouTube parodies that use footage of a Hitler meltdown (it has been used to illustrate everything from delays in the design of the Boeing Dreamliner to real estate foreclosure) you have seen Bruno Ganz in action. But there is much more to his interpretation of the most hated individual of the 20th century than tantrums of spitting and screaming. Ganz spent months getting the voice down: the growl, the speech patterns, the absolute devotion and passion of the delivery. He also explored the ravages of Parkinson’s disease: the uncontrollable shaking of Hitler’s hands and his attempts to conceal them behind his back when speaking in public. Emotionally unstable, he careens from kind acceptance and encouragement of his young secretary to deriding the German people as failures who could not deliver his grand and superior vision.
Does the realization of Hitler’s humanity make him any less monstrous? The loyalty he, an imperfect and crude man, inspired in those who followed him to the end is chilling: a mother poisons her children rather than see them wake up in a defeated Germany, soldiers and diplomats blow their brains out rather than surrender. Would we be more comfortable seeing a tank, a gun, or a faceless uniform as a villain because this denies the humanity of people who do such horrible things? When we see Hitler pet his dog or compliment his cook does that make us wonder about ourselves?
What is so disturbing is that the violence of World War II was not perpetrated by monsters. These were not aliens who saw humans as a life form slightly above cattle, immortal beings who carelessly vied for power, or powerful animals that knew no better. These were people who suspended humanity and civility in order to accomplish murder on a grand scale and were swept into a storm much larger than themselves. Is that not more terrifying?
As artists, we spend time exploring humanity. It is impossible to do so without coming in contact with darkness, with feelings and deeds that are destructive. When these get too big and painful for us, we create monsters as symbols to help us distance ourselves from them. This is necessary. Equally necessary are works that let the monster mask slip away, reminding us that what lies beneath is a human face.
What are the monsters in your work? Do they help you understand what it is to be human or do they obscure it?