Reality check 

Hitler's secretary and Shanghai refugees offer two perspectives on the Holocaust

Last year's Secretary illustrated the power dynamic of the boss / stenographer relationship. Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary repeats that notion, albeit in far darker terms. The documentary is composed entirely of the recollections of one of Hitler's most intimate acquaintances, and yet one of history's least known, Traudl Junge.

Junge, Hitler's secretary from 1942 until her final dictation of the Fuhrer's will before his 1945 suicide, gives plenty of insight into the man that may prove troubling to people who would prefer to see the Nazi dictator as pure, inhumane evil.

Blind Spot suggests instead that Hitler, in his secretary's eyes, was a rather banal, warm, protective figure who loved his dog Blondie passionately, was chivalrous, hated cut flowers (they reminded him of dead things), honored ideals of pristine beauty and athleticism and suffered from persistent digestive problems.

Early on, Junge admits, she felt a security and sense of paternal protection working for Hitler that helped make up for a lack of a caring male role model in her own childhood. That personal impression of Hitler helps to explain a historical phenomenon of why the man was so charismatic and appealing to the masses that rewarded him with unparalleled devotion. Junge's welcome subservience to Hitler only echoed the nation's blind allegiance. Like children, Hitler's intimates maintained a code of polite denial that protected him from the reality of what he was doing to the Jews. Hitler, Junge admits, operated within a world of abstraction that allowed him to think in ideals while denying individual suffering and human weakness.

Like the manic sons of Capturing the Friedmans who can't shut up, who talk and talk and talk underneath the gaze of the camera, Junge seems similarly unburdened by her talking cure. The deeper Junge gets into her story, the more frantic and rushed her recollections become. By the time she describes her nightmarish last days with Hitler, she is rendered nearly breathless in the rush of words.

The "blind spot" of the film's title is the lack of perspective that proximity to a thing can create (also evident in Capturing the Friedmans). Junge admits she was simply too close to the real, day-to-day, ordinary Hitler to make some crucial psychological connections with his role as mass murderer. The obedient ersatz daughter until the very end, Junge considered suicide along with Hitler when they holed up in his bunker as the war wound down.

Seemingly fearful of exploiting, sensationalizing or humanizing the material or the man, filmmakers Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer have done everything in their power not to make Blind Spot fascinating. But even spoken directly into the camera, with little change of camera angle, Junge's detailed recollections and the film itself are nevertheless hypnotic.

Though Blind Spot's aesthetic minimalism initially seems strained from striving too hard for an emotional neutrality, it turns out to be an incredibly effective strategy. It's far more effective than the traditional interplay of talking head interviews and all-too-familiar newsreel footage in the more conventional Holocaust documentary Shanghai Ghetto.

Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann's documentary hits all of the conventional marks in following the emigration of German Jews to the surprising safe haven of Shanghai to escape the Holocaust. The five interviewees (one of whom is director Dana Janklowicz-Mann's father Harold), who were children at the time, recount the gradual erasure of their privileges in Germany and the slowly dawning realization that they had to flee their homeland.

But the far more interesting portion of the film is when they talk about their impressions of Shanghai, an international city that allowed Jewish refugees entry even when the United States and England denied them. These Jewish refugees' lot was often far better than that of the Chinese living under Japanese rule, who were treated cruelly and suffered abysmal poverty, but who never seemed to begrudge the Jewish refugees the food and aid they received from American Jewish groups.

Though the interviewees initially complain bitterly about Shanghai's heat and unhygienic conditions, these Holocaust survivors eventually come to marvel, once news of the concentration camps was revealed, at how their circumstance was relatively paradisiacal. Shanghai Ghetto highlights a little known aspect of the Jewish experience during WWII and provides crucial anecdotal memories of a Holocaust disappearing from living memory. But its strict adherence to documentary formula and its preponderance of tangential, personal detail can make for a slow-going experience.



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