Chaos and Desperation

in 28th Montreal World Film Festival

by Jeanette Gentele

Was there resistance and if so who were the people who really resisted the Nazis? This is a subject under fierce debate – again – not only in Germany but all around Europe. Films dealing with the question often portray obscure young heroes whose consciousness and courage grow as they become aware of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. This is the case in Dennis Gansens German movie Napola about a Nazi elite school, shown out of competition at the World Film Festival in Montreal. Two young ardent students from different backgrounds, start to question the Nazi ideology, after they discover that they have been lied to about a military manoeuvre in which children are killed.

Director Niko von Glasow has a similar and yet somewhat different approach to the subject in Edelweiss Pirates, shown in competition. The film follows a group of young thugs in Cologne calling themselves Edelweisspiraten towards the end of the war. They fight the Hitlerjugend not because their politics is different but because they constitute a rivaling gang. It is more of a game of “us against them” than a conscious opposition . Karl, the young protagonist of the film, is not politically aware; he is someone who defends the people he loves, his brother Peter, his uncle’s widow Cilly, his friends. What he discovers is that the people in power are lying. They talk about an imminent victory while his father’s letters from the front talk about defeat. Karl and his friends are arrested for committing the same criminal acts that the members of Gestapo commit every day without being punished. Criminal powers rule. Karl and his friends start sabotage activity directed against the Gestapo.

But if they were excused as young thugs before, they are not excused any more. As the Gestapo close in on them, Karl decides to act. However, instead of sacrificing himself for a good cause, he prepares to betray the communist resistance man Hans,in order to save his brother’s life. The fact that Hans is his rival about Cilly does not make his decision easier or any nobler. Edelweiss Pirates show that people may have a number of motives, encompassing both resistance and betrayal, and that in a life threatening situation the line between the two turns out to be very thin. Karls ends up a double loser, losing both his brother and his dignity.

The setting of the film depicts an anonymous heap of rubble, a trap from which there is no exit. Karl becomes more and more like a wild animal. The hand held camera visualizes the chaos and desperation – things fall apart when the center cannot hold. Human relations and society both disintegrate.