Martyrdom of The Innocent, Those Who, As If, Take The Responsibility For Nazi Psychosis

Consumers of swastika
Three types of German men in the beginning of 30s
History of crimes by metaphoric language

Oh Germany, pale mother!
What have your sons done to you
That you sit among the nations
A mockery or a fright!

From Bertolt Brecht’s “Deutschland”, 1933

Ulrich – At least you are not a socialist.
Hans – I don’t care. I just want peace and the girl with the black hair. I want to live. Surely, Fuhrer cannot be against that?

Short dialogue between Nazi Ulrich and apolitical Hans

…Mood, in which practical survival and accommodation take precedence over the work of memory and mourning… Decline in human values corresponds directly to the increase in profit rates.
Anton Kaes, “From Hitler to Heimat (The return of History as Film), Harvard, 1989, p. 83

Auschwitz can be seen as a sort of modern industrial apparatus for the elimination of difference.
Erik L. Santner

… An inability to tolerate difference, heterogeneity, non-mastery… An inability or refusal to engage in tasks of mourning which institute difference on the ruins of (infantile) fantasies of omnipotence.
Erik L. Santner

The promise of happiness with which the Nazis were able to enthuse the vast majority of the German population… was directed toward the deep homesickness at the core of the modern subject who must sustain, on a daily basis, the stress of the chronic narcissistic injury of dwelling among eyes that do not return one’s gaze.
Erik L. Santner, “Stranded Objects (Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany)”, Cornell, 1990, p. 130

The German population had narcissistically identified with Hitler and the ideology of National Socialism. This globally deployed narcissism projected difference and otherness as something that intervenes from outside, something that could and should be purged from an otherwise pure system seamlessly continuous with itself… To eliminate the Jews would allow for a fantasy of return to the purity of a self-identity unmediated by any passage through alterity… The ideology of National Socialism and the narcissistic identification with Hitler promised a utopian world in which one was free to destroy what threatened the claustral intimacy afforded by this narcissism… The simulation of a pure, specular reciprocity between self and the other was achieved by finding those one could blame for having disturbed this utopian exchange of gazes. In such a utopia a mature self could never really develop.
Erik L. Santner, Ibid, p. 5 – 6

Rejecting the glorification of male heroism Sanders-Brahms concentrated on the private stories of those “who elected Hitler. Or maybe didn’t even vote for him but didn’t protest, didn’t join the underground, the resistance movement, weren’t sent to a concentration camp, didn’t emigrate, but instead wanted a simple life, love, marriage, a child, in the midst of the twilight of the Gods, in the midst of immense staging of the male dream of victory or annihilation, of triumph and the void, those millions of chorus members in the great opera…” (H. Sanders-Brahms)
Anton Kaes, Ibid, p. 153

Germany’s unique chance for a radically new beginning in 1945 was missed once and for all. Instead, the old ideas of property and greed and all the traditional values were restored. The will to reform had all too soon exhausted itself.
Anton Kaes, Ibid, p. 102

The apparent absence of any sustained emotional confrontation with the Nazi past in post-war German society. Deep feelings of contrition and genuine urge to heal injury had not followed upon recognition of complicity in horrific crimes performed in the name of the fatherland; shame did not followed upon loss of face among nation; the desire to remember had not followed upon the testimonies of survivors of the Final Solution… The population of the new Federal Republic had avoided the psychological reaction to the defeat in 1945, the direct confrontation with the fact of Holocaust and the loss of Hitler as Fuhrer… ego of every single German individual suffered a central devaluation and impoverishment. This creates the prerequisites for a melancholic reaction… A melancholic response to loss ensues when the object was loved not as separate and distinct from oneself, but rather as a mirror of one’s own sense of self and power. The predisposition to love in this manner obtains when the self lacks sufficient strength and cohesion to tolerate, much less comprehend, the reality of separateness (this is the situation of both – the infant and the adult melancholic). The paradox of this narcissism is that the narcissist loves an object only insofar and as long as he or she can repress the otherness of the object; narcissistic love plays itself out in the (non-) space where “I” and “you” are not perceived as having hard edges… What melancholy must work through is not so much the loss of the particular object that one had loved and cared for but rather the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence… The predominance of the narcissistic element in the communal fabric of Nazi Germany… Before Germans could really begin to perceive the full magnitude of the crimes committed in the name of the fatherland and to mourn for the victims of Nazism, they would first have to work through the traumatic shattering of the specular relations they had maintained with Hitler and the Volksgemeinschaft. In a word, a sense of self would first have to be reconstructed on the ruins of this narcissism.
Erik L. Santner, Ibid, p. 1 – 4

Among the psychic structures that impeded mourning is a thinking in rigid binary oppositions which forms the sociological basis of all searches for scapegoats… the utopian libido is in essence a yearning for a space of specular mutuality, a place where eyes return gaze… the link between this yearning and fascism.
Erik L. Santner

Helma Sanders-Brahms

Frantisek Janousek Head-1
Frantisek Janousek (1890 – 1943), “Head”, 1935

This work depicts a typical reaction of philistines on a growing fascination with fascist movements and conservative sensibility in general (rigid, antagonistic and intolerant) in many European countries before WWII. Philistines are not prone to fall for extremist political movements wrapped around megalomaniacal political ambitions of their leaders – they just want “to live well”. But they don’t know what a heavy price they will pay for not resisting the fascist contempt for people’s prosperity and wellbeing. What Janousek has drawn here is the philistine’s inability to notice the anti-humanist nature of the right wing (with fascist currents) politics and, simultaneously, the morbid nature of this inability. The monstrous growth the woman got on her face is this inability to see the fascist emotion behind militarism and anti-humane ideas like austerity for population or dismantling social security.

Helma S-BrahmsEvaMattes
The heroine of the film, after the end of war, was struck with a tormenting and a bizarre illness – a permanent painful spasm/grimace of her face (partial facial paralysis). Try to compare Janousek’s drawing with what happened with Lena’s face right after WWII, when she who never sympathized with Nazi ideology, gradually came to understand how she and her husband are destroyed inside their souls for not resisting and not protesting.

Anna’s parents, Lena and Hans, are, rather, refined souls to fall for Nazi ideology – this coarse belief that “we are better than other people and have the right to be natural leaders of the planet”, but they are victims of equal absurdity that it’s possible to have a personal happiness when in social and international relations the rule is usurpation, violence, despotism and bullying supported by anti-humanistic worldview.

Humility, shyness, love and mutual respect is the behavioral norm between Lena and her bridegroom, while outside their nest of happiness the slogan of the day is righteous hate and violence.

The beginning of new weds’ life together is like a fairytale amidst a falling reality, a fairytale which Helma S-Brahms shows, as if, through a veil of blissful dream.

This photograph registered the immense popularity of Hitler as a totalitarian leader. Jingoistic spirit of “we-the-best” in the world brought such a pleasure to the impoverished Germans that they forgot that the world is created as consisting of different people with their own interests and wills and that disregarding this fact means unleashing a monstrous violence which will engulf not only its victims and it’s carriers but the witnesses also. This photo is not part of the film but the director uses a lot of documentary footages characterizing the atmosphere in Germany before and during the war. Fascist populism appealing to the mass need for common identity – for specular unity based on mutual identification through similarity (when “gaze returns gaze” and when people feel stronger by a common power and enjoy this feeling of multiplied collective strength) is very dangerous (today it reminds the emotional appeal of the right wing talk show hosts and politicians, who agitate and excite people by their hate speeches).

The time depicted in this still is only the beginning of the 30s, and these people are not yet too violent, they just hope that their SS-uniform will provide them with social success, attention of the girls and respect of the population at large…it’s like today’s teenager could innocently brag in front of girls that he is a secret agent or is in a elite military unit.

Moved by utopian hope to “beat” fascism by ignoring it (typical liberal illusion that by ignoring the bullying conservatives they are “handling” their dirty verbal attacks), Lena and Hans (who is conscripted as a private) have decided to have a baby – each other’s gift to each other amidst war.

Hans as a soldier (on the left) “passively” participates in the arrest and sentencing of the “suspected terrorists” to be shot. Pay attention to the composition of this still. Three Nazis – two of them are soldiers and one an officer are in stable poses but the person who is sentenced to be shot is passing through the stable composition, as if, not belonging to it – he is already on his way out of life.

Hans as a soldier has a right sometimes to visit his family. But it happens so seldom that their little daughter doesn’t have time to figure out who this strange man stealing mother’s attention is. Hans see Anna for the first time. Lena brought her as flowers for him. But there is more vitality in Anna’s distress than in Lena’s and Hans’ smiles.

In spite of all their efforts, Lena and Hans are not able to be with each other like before. Something tormentingly strange, nesting in their feelings, starts to, somehow, separate them from each other.

The collective megalomania inherent in war-making made Hans lose the ability to feel reverie for being alive and for being near his wife, while Lena has lost the ability to feel anything outside her role as a mother, under bombs with her child. The time came when Lena and Hans were not able to make love when he came to visit on military leave.

Caring about and loving Anna in circumstances of inhumanity around created in Lena a tormenting split. The very contrast between love and extreme hate made her even unable to love her own daughter inside the very love she has for her. Her unconscious became confused and disoriented. She felt that she becomes a kind of emotionally crippled.

Men who, like Hans, were conscripted to fight the countries Germany invaded according to the idea of “preventive self-defense” (in today’s language – “Bush doctrine”) and were following orders of decision-makers (who imagined a global world order under German domination), became also psychologically destroyed as were the women who stayed home caring after their children. They were victims of the incompatibility between official thinking about other people as pans in “our game” and the official cause of the war – the necessity to save “our homeland” from foreign invaders and terrorists who “hate and envy us because we are better”.

Lena mobilized all the power of her ability to love to keep Anna’s soul protected from the violence around, be it military (“against us” – American, Russian and British bombing of German cities) or ideological (“our own” righteous hate for enemies from all directions).

Lena had to be on the move from place to place on foot to save Anna from permanent bombardment.

Germany was destroyed by bombing and shelling, and Lena and Anna had to live nomadically, with casual roofs over their heads.

The end of war didn’t bring any relief to Lena and Hans because decent people like them started to feel the burden of guilt, to feel themselves as participants in the meaningless destruction started by their nation. It‘s as though the bricks from collapsed buildings, we see in this shot were falling upon their conscience.

Lena’s crisis of mute – purely a somatic self-condemnation for a lifelong passive participation in Nazism now is shared even by Anna who developed bizarre symptoms like a sudden uncontrollable defecation in public as a kind of symbolic “statement” (she unconsciously, without understanding, identified with her mother’s self-torments)

The importance of Lena‘s emerged facial paralysis is that this distortion of her face is a form of her martyrdom as an atonement for Germany’s crimes against humanity during Nazi period. It is, as if, she took Germany’s Nazi’s sins to herself. Her involuntary “frozen” twitch is a stigma of shame for herself, for the majority of population supported Hitler because they enjoyed the aggrandized feeling of being better and stronger than all other countries. This stigma makes Lena an existential equivalent of a saint.

“Symptoms, as Freud has taught, are traces of another unconscious reality that haunts our conscious reality like a revenant being. In the present context, they would be the traces of knowledge denied, of deeds left undone, of eyes averted from pain, of shades drawn, of moments when it might have been possible to ask a question or to resist, but one didn’t ask and one didn’t resist.” (Erik L. Santner)


The danger for democracy to slide into a totalitarian society existed from the very moment when democracy appeared from a proto-totalitarian system. Today, in US of 21st century, we cannot avoid noticing that we live in an epoch when the financial elite mobilizes the political ideologists among the militant neo-conservatives who genuinely hate a general prosperity and freedom for everybody which democracy established with such difficulties, and try through the austerity for population, omnipresent surveillance of American citizens, militarism and propaganda of scapegoating (fabrication of enemies), to turn democracy into pre- and anti-democracy. Helma S-Brahms in her film tries to explain how Nazism appeared and realized itself in Germany of the 30s by analyzing in details not only the psychology of the Nazis motivated by obsession with possessing social power and addicted to mob kind of loyalty to their group. The director also examines the position of those who were not promoters of Nazism and were not even its passive followers, but rather just adapted to it, not ideologically even, but existentially. She analyses the nightmarish consequences of Nazism for regular Germans.

The lessons of “Germany, Pale Mother” for all those who today flirt with neo-conservatism with its attractive for neophytes hate speech (providing them an instant pleasure of feeling themselves stronger than other people and having the “right” to insult and humiliate their opponents), are valuable and numerous. Everyone in US ought to take this lesson to heart, especially today. Helma S-Brahms is not making obvious points about the evilness of the Third Reich’s leaders or Nazi political ideology. She has much more ambitious and a difficult task – to comprehend the socio-psychological mechanism of fascist existential perversion. She is pointing out how everybody is participating in this absurd enterprise because they want the benefits the fascist system is promising and offering, the psychological ones (feeling of being chosen, better and stronger than everybody else and having right to feel contempt for those that are not like “us”) and the material (be rewarded with the right to manipulate, torture, kill and rob other people, and with ruling social positions over the conquered world). The unconditional belief in the ultimate truth of “our” ideology is a condition for getting these benefits (masking the fact that it is the benefits we are after, not the disinterested truth).

A lot of attention Helma S-Brahms pays to the popular illusion that private life can guarantee absolute happiness even when social life is over-competitive, full of strife and animosity, risky, not free and unjust. Today, important variant of the ideology of privatized happiness is ideology of unscrupulous money-making that considers public realm as instrumental area for making private money (of treating the public sphere from the perspective of private interests, as if, it’s not a place inhabited by other human beings who exists not only to provide “me” with money but to live their own lives). Lena and Hans hope that love and happiness they give to each other will protect them from a deteriorating social world. They are both moral and pure human beings. They are lucky to have survived the war, and they have a beautiful child. It is exactly because they are morally outside of the fascist world of megalomania, cruelty and hate that they are “self-chosen” to become martyrs of totalitarianism, when Germany’s Nazi past became their horrifying psychological wound.

The feminist perspective becomes noticeable in the film gradually and comes naturally. Because Hans spent the whole war in the German army as a private while Lena could remain at home looking after their daughter, he (while being for his comrades-in-arms object of permanent laughter for being not “military enough”) was ripped off from ontological roots and from his own personality, but Lena experienced the war as a civilian. The permanent contact with her daughter, Anna, providing Lena with energy of reverie in front of life (in spite of the difficulties of survival chronic hunger and bombing raids), helped her to become more mature than Hans, before the final ordeal when already after war they both felt spiritually destroyed and unable to continue to live. “The private realm is played off (by Sanders-Brahms) against the political in a particularly provocative way when the film insists that Lena and Anna have their happiest moments in the midst of war, without a roof over their heads, surrounded by ruins. ‘Once hearth and home were demolished you became cheerful. We began to have good times after everything was destroyed’ – adult Anna’s voice-over. The film implies that the physical destruction of the bourgeois-patriarchal household creates the freedom necessary for the mother to develop as an independent personality. After her husband returns from war – and with him the old patriarchal order – the conventional division between the private and the public sphere is reinstated, and the mother is once again trapped in the home: ‘The stones we pounded were used to make houses that were worse than those before. Lena, if we had known. Lena, if we had only known… that was the return of the living rooms. The war began inside, once there was peace outside’ – adult Anna’s voice-over.” (Anton Kaes, Ibid, p. 154)

The feminist perspective helps the director to be able to emphasize the continuation (non-contradiction) between totalitarian (patriarchal) worldview during peaceful times and the atmosphere during the war. Machoistic power-bravado, militarism and belligerency in the form of war propaganda start much before the actual outbreak of war. “Sanders-Brahms intentionally emphasizes experience of reality in her film that are gender-specific and that do not occur in the male version of history: the significance of a birth (the critical opposition between life-giving and life-destroying activities – Sanders-Brahms intercuts documentary footage of bombs falling from airplanes with a realistically staged sequence of Lena giving birth…), maternal care for the child, the fear of rape, the physical reaction of women to violence and psychological harm, and finally the relationship between mother and daughter, which is particularly important for the establishment of female identity.” (Anton Kaes, Ibid, p. 155)

Nazism is an idolized political belief as psychologically a religious phenomenon when ruling ideology for everybody demands absolute obedience which is unconditional belief.

The questions for helping viewers to appreciate the semantically rich visual images of the film:

1.Why when we see in the beginning of the film the giant banner with swastika, we see insects gluing to it? Why right after the director makes us see two young people in SS-uniform, drinking Champaign and eating giant sausages?

2. Why, when Lena and Hans after their wedding walking for the first time into their bedroom, S-Brahms shows us only their legs?

3. Why did the director include the pieces of Hitler’s speech into the scene of condom distribution among the German soldiers in Hans’ unit?

4. Why Lena’s recitation to Anna of the fairy-tale of Grimm brothers takes so long (takes so much film time)? Which two kinds of time are juxtaposed here? Why the scene of this recitation takes place when Lena and Anna travel on foot through the Germany?

5. Is Lena’s ability to protect Anna from traumas in times of war and still to communicate the truth about their life by coding it into fairy-tales the basic reason for Anna’s emotional health later in life?

6. How does the fact that Ulrich, after German surrender, tell Anna to call her father a weirdo, characterizes Ulrich as a Nazi, although officially “denazified”, and why this joking idea to engage the girl as a messenger could come to his mind?

7. Why S-Brahms disorients us visually in relation to Lena’s facial paralysis by showing at first her paralyzed face in the mirror? Is she trying to make viewers’ perception of Lena’s illness less instrumental, less technical, as if saying to us – Don’t be occupied with physician-like approach to Lena’s illness? Can we say that the monstrous grimace frozen on Lena’s face is how Lena sees herself?

8. Can the episode of extracting Lena’s teeth be a parody on exactly instrumental, technical perception of the illness, on the habit to separate illness from its socio-cultural context?

9. Is Anna’s involuntary defecation during the dinner at Fritzens’s somehow the equivalent of her mother’s facial paralysis?

10. Which three kinds of German people does the film describe in the time of Nazis coming to power? Which male characters personify them?

11. What differentiates and what unites them? What psychological characteristics these types have behind their socio-political positions?

12. Who are Ulrichs and Hanses in US in the beginning of 21st century?

13. What is the paradox of “de-nazified” Nazi?

14. How to understand Mr. Fritzens’ remark that he is sensitive to smell when the accident happened to Anna during the dinner at Fritzens’?

15. Why S-Brahms makes an accent on collective prayer before starting the meal at Fritzens’ after WWII is over, an accent which she doesn’t make at any other point in the film?

16. Why, when Lena, during one of the first Hans’ visit home from the army, kisses Hans’ chest (Hans is already in his uniform ready to live the house for the frontline), Hans in response embraces her head?

Posted on Aug, 4 2014 –   “Germany, Pale Mother” (1980) by Helma Sanders-Brahms (1940 – 2014) by Acting-Out Politics