Life Is Beautiful.
Mary Doria Russell and Peter Carey discuss ‘Life is Beautiful’ and ‘The Last Days’
By David Templeton
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a movie review, but a freewheeling discussion of popular culture.
Mary Doria Russell is the best-selling author of The Sparrow and Children of God, a hard-hitting, two-part science fiction epic she gleefully describes as “Jesuits in space.” The winners of numerous awards, Russell’s astonishing extra-terrestrial tragedy is the saga of an intelligent, well-meaning band of priests and scientists from Earth who attempt to make mutually-beneficial first contact with the inhabitants of a distant planet. Peter Carey is the Australian-born author of Oscar & Lucinda. His recent best-seller, Jack Maggs, is an absorbing tale of a convict from the prison colony of Australia who illegally returns to London to (unwittingly) face his own ghosts with the help of a nefarious hypnotist.
What follows is a complete transcript of the Talking Pictures conversation with Russell, Carey and interviewer David Templeton.
Russell: Did you notice the stunned silence in the theater? As if no one could bring themselves to get up and walk out on the credits. It felt as if, to walk out on the credits would have been an insult. That film, to me, should be required for anybody who goes and sees one of these exploitative comedies, like Life is Beautiful. I get angrier and angrier when I think about that film, and The Harmonists and Jakob the Liar [an upcoming Robin Williams comedy/drama set in the Polish ghettos of World War II] and all the rest. If you go to those films you should be required afterwards to see The Last Days.
Carey: [Addressing Russell] I didn’t feel your sense of intense anger about Life is Beautiful when I saw it. But I’m perfectly capable of feeling it now. But when I did see it, I certainly had a lot of reservations, while enjoying a lot of things about it. But there were things that didn’t quite make sense, that were badly done. But I was thinking, there are assumptions that are made about what people know already about the Holocaust. So when you say what you just said–a film like Life is Beautiful is read differently by people who know about the things shown in this film–as opposed to your 13 year-old son, or even someone’s 30-year-old sons and daughters–who have no idea. I don’t know what that leads to, but …
Russell: I was only annoyed before. But after seeing The Last Days … This was an intensely emotional experience, and I was completely unprepared for how enraged I am by use of the Holocaust for entertainment. So there. I’ve really put a damper on this conversation, haven’t I?
Carey: Well, I think the film put the damper on the conversation, really. After watching this, almost everything around us seems trivial.
Templeton: Anything we say would be only restating what the film has already said much better. I’ve seen a number of documentaries about the Holocaust, and I almost always prefer them to fictional films about the same subject, including Schindler’s List, although even that was …
Russell: … based on a true story. Only based on.
Templeton: Right. And yet this film, The Last Days, was among the most powerful I can remember, because it did balance those images, the mountains of bodies, with those very minute, highly personal details of the survivors lives. And those who didn’t survive. By flowing back and forth between the Big Picture and the Small Personal Picture, I think it really got through any emotional barriers people might but up.
Russell: This is the one that I would want people to see. This was made to educate people about the Shoah, as opposed to using the Shoah to educate people. That’s a subtle distinction, but it’s important. You don’t take the Holocaust and make it into a tool to teach people about “man’s inhumanity to man.” Okay? That’s appropriating the Holocaust. It’s using it for a larger purpose. This film was to educate people about this one event in history, an event which belongs to those people who were victims of it, who experienced it, who survived it. I think that’s something that very few people get. The difference between using it to teach, and teaching it. A subtle difference, but extremely important.
Templeton: I think that your anger, your angry reaction to films like Life is Beautiful and The Harmonists is very important. Because anger is something we’re always so uncomfortable with. When people are upset at any cause that is important to them–and they display a sense of anger or outrage–our initial reaction is to calm those people down, make them feel better, and shut then up as quickly as possible. [Turning to Carey] Though it refers to an entirely different situation than the Holocaust, I was struck by something I read in an interview you once gave, where you were talking about reading David Copperfield, and recognized that the character of Magwitch was an ancestor, a convict sent to Australia, and that your reaction was one of anger.
Carey: Well, yes. But let me tell you. The intensity of that anger was not at this level. [He gestures toward Russell.] I mean, they are real feelings, and they’re not manufactured, but it’s not like this. And I feel wary of even getting into that conversation, because it feels like getting into a book promotion chat, and that also feels … sort of inappropriate right now.
Russell: I’ll be very honest with you, and tell you that one of the reasons this hit me so hard, is that my third novel is about the Jewish underground in Genoa during the Nazi occupation of Italy. That’s what I’m working on right now. I’m Italian by heritage, and I’m a Jew by choice. So this brings together two elements of my background to do this.
Templeton: You were raised a Catholic, weren’t you?
Russell: You can’t even go that far. I was raised as a Catholic in a very spotty manner, because my mother happened to have married a Catholic and had to promise to raise the children in that religion. I never saw my parents in a church, outside of weddings and funerals, my whole life. So it’s not like I was ever very Catholic. I was an atheist for many years and … it’s a long story. I’m writing about an era of history, and about a place, where there was an 87 percent survival rate. Okay? The Italian part of me wants this to be known, that there was one place in occupied Europe where the opposite percentage of deaths took place–when compared to the rest of Europe–where the people of the villages where Jews lived, and in the cities and the neighborhoods, where the people did not turn on them when the Nazi’s rolled into town. Where people did simply accept refugees that knocked on their door in the middle of the night. I spoke to one woman who is collecting stories for Steven Spielberg in Northern Italy. One woman talks about when she was a very small child–I’m not sure how old she was–they were from Austria, and they got off the train in Italy and literally went to the one place where there was a light on. And her mother knocked on the door, and the woman who came to the door began to scream at them. ‘I’ll have nothing to do with strangers like you.’ They were very obviously Jewish, of course. ‘I’ll have nothing to do with foreigners.’ And as she’s screaming this, she’s writing an address down. She hands this address to Maryanne’s mother, and they go to this address and 20 minutes later, this woman arrives with milk and blankets for the children, and says, ‘I’m sorry. I had to yell. We have a fascist who lives across the street and we had to make an opera for him.’ For the next 20 months that woman took personal responsibility for making sure that Maryanne Krause’s family lived through one of the most brutal and vicious occupations of World War II. Because they knocked on her door in the middle of the night. Now, I have interviewed Italians on both sides–Italian Jews, and Italians who helped, who became rescuers. And what you hear these Italian rescuers saying, over and over again, is, ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything special. Anybody would have done that.’ We’ve just seen a documentary that shows how few people did help, and how extraordinary the Italian reaction to the occupation was. To know that at the end of those 20 months, they had lost only 10 to 12 percent of their Jewish population–still a terrific die-off rate–but compared to the 90 percent that was occurring elsewhere, it’s extraordinary.
Russell: Now, where am I going with this? I want to tell the story of people who were decent, who maintained their common humanity during this awful period of time. And who paid a terrible price for it. Villages were leveled when they were found to be harboring Jews. And everyone knew this was the price they’d pay if caught. Early on in the occupation, the Nazi’s would randomly round up and shoot ten Italians for every one German who was killed. They’d be executed in public. So everyone knew what the price was for going against the Germans. So I may be fueling this feel-good aspect of the Holocaust. And I’m appalled by that. So I’ve been mentally rewriting the end of my book, thinking, ‘Damn! I’m going to have to kill all of my characters off, to show that they paid the price.’ I’ll have to have readers invest their emotions in these people, only to kill them all off–and that’s too much like my first two books. [Laughs.] So I’m suddenly saddled with this professional ethical problem. I was horrified when I saw the trailer for The Harmonizers. I thought, ‘Oh my God! Another one.’ All about how, if you only had enough courage back then, you could up and slug a Nazi–and get a way with it. They would have put a bullet through his brain that second. He’d have been spattered all over that dining room. But I’m sure that’s not what happens in the movie. And I doubt very sincerely that particular incident was part of the true story.”
[She pauses, taking a deep breath, then shaking herself as if to shake off the tirade.]
Carey: Well. The thing that I was thinking about, and it’s not so much to do with Great Expectations or Magwitch or any of those things, but I was thinking about the whole business of … I was thinking about myself. And I was thinking about guilt, and about responsibility, and about why Australians are the way they are. The history of Australia is not only that the place was this terrible prison, it was a concentration camp.
Russell: Yes. Absolutely.
Carey: So there are twin things at work here. The first thing being, there’s this horrible concentration camp which effects a country forever. Who we are, how we act, and everything, are to a huge degree determined by that concentration camp experience. Then the other thing that happens is the aspect of genocide. When you’re thinking about Australia, and what’s our moral inheritance, it’s a very complicated thing. Because on the one hand you have these people who are, well, some of them are political prisoners, but for the most part they are a criminal underclass that have been sent away.
Russell: If they’d done anything really serious they would have been hung back in England.
Carey: Well, sometimes they gave them the lesser sentence to be nice to them. So it’s very complicated for we Australians to think about this, that our ancestors were murderers and thieves. But it’s also complicated for us because we’ve done two things with this information. Some of them have just started denying that convicts and imprisonment had anything to do with our past. And then, more recently, others started this thing of thinking it was cool to have a convict ancestor. Australians have to do this really complicated thing, of hating their forebears. There are so many threads of self hatred at play in the Australian personality, and part of it has to do with, well … It’s why, when you’re an Australian and you visit Germany, they’re very interested in talking to you. It’s quite under-the-surface, but it’s there. We have something in common. Our forebears did unspeakable things. That might sound rather glib, but …
Russell: That’s very interesting. I listen to you talking about how there’s this sense of responsibility at war with the notion that we ought to be proud of our ancestors. One of the things that happens when you try to universalize the Shoah, for example, and make it into “a lesson for all mankind,” as opposed to its being its own horrible event–is you begin to develop the notion of collective guilt. That Germans who were born in 1950 are somehow responsible for the things that their grandparents and their parents did. I reject that. I think they are responsible for learning everything that they can to know about it, and to prevent other things that are like it from happening. I think that, partly, it’s why the Germans were in so much agony about Bosnia. To watch the genocide happening again. To see other people being lulled into that sense of, ‘Well, it’s not happening in my country, it’s not about me, it’s a civil war and I don’t have to get involved.’ Until very recently, Germany has been one of the most liberal country’s in Europe about accepting refugees. Because of the their commitment to learning from their past. So I don’t accept collective guilt.
Carey: But there’s guilt and then there’s responsibility.
Russell: You’re responsible for what you can do today, now, right at this moment. You are not responsible for what grandpa did.
Russell: My grandfather did time for armed robbery. I do not feel responsible for that.
Carey: Yes, of course. So responsibility is good–and that assumption of guilt is very unhealthy–I agree.
Russell: But, should you choose to follow in your forebears footsteps, you know exactly what kind of guilt you’re getting yourself into.
Templeton: There was an incident that took place here in the Bay Area when Schindler’s List came out. A predominantly black high school had a field trip, and sent an entire class of students to see the movie. The expectation was that these black underprivileged students would identify with the oppressed Jewish people in the camps. What happened was, to the horror of the adults in charge of this event, that the students started laughing at the most brutal moments of the film, even cheering when prisoners were executed.
Russell: I remember when that happened. I think it was simply adolescent nervousness with anything that touches them. Teens are so scared of their own emotions that they laugh to distance themselves from those feelings. But going back to the idea of universalizing the Holocaust and turning it into something different, I’ve heard blacks in this country describe slavery as a holocaust. But it wasn’t a holocaust. It was, in its own way, something equally horrifying, but they didn’t put blacks into ovens. They didn’t shoot them by the hundreds and push them into mass graves. They bred them like cattle. Don’t lose track of that specific particularity, don’t lose sight of that specific inhumanity by trying to equate it with the Holocaust. The Shoah has become the great global metaphor for all inhumanity. When, in order to maintain a sense of the real breadth and depth that our species is capable of, you’ve got to keep in mind what specific things humans have done to one another. To be bred like cattle for four centuries, to be treated as property over that period, is a horror that needs to be understood and remembered on its own terms. In Australia, it wasn’t a holocaust, it wasn’t a genocide …
Carey: It was in Tasmania, but anyway.
Russell: Yes. Well, in Tasmania there were the sweeps. That was a genocide. But on the Australian mainland, the idea was, ‘to make smooth the pillow of the dying race.’ The assumption was that Europeans were obviously the pinnacle of evolution, and the march of progress was such that these poor benighted people were destined to die out. So it was a great surprise to everybody when their numbers actually went up. But the notion was that the aborigines were on their way out and the Europeans would be present to make things nice at the inevitable conclusion of their race. That’s a different kind of particular tragedy that must be remembered and dealt with on its own terms. But not by using the Holocaust as a metaphor.
Templeton: I have to ask, not being up to speed on my Tasmanian history, what happened there?
Carey: There are no native Tasmanians in Tasmania. The last full-blooded aboriginal Tasmanian died, I can’t remember when, in the late 19th century.
Russell: In Tasmania, there were sweeps, very much like through the valleys of Italy during the last months of the war, where the Germans would start at one end of the valley just sweep through looking for Jews. In Tasmania, it was essentially the same thing. There would be lines of hunters, literally beating the quarry, just like they would have done with animals, shooting anyone who came in front of them. Tasmania’s not that big an island, so they’d start at one end, and move across. Now, again, that’s a tragedy that deserves to be remembered in its own way. They were exterminating vermin. The thread here is, that whenever the notion of group superiority raises its head, atrocities of this nature are bound to follow. There’s the commonality. The belief that the Europeans had a right to rid Tasmania of Tasmanians, because they were Europeans. You have the Germans believing that they are the Ubermenschen, so they have the right to rid the landscape of Untermenschen. You have European slave owners in the early Americas, who believed they had the right to use other people’s labor and lives as their property and their tools. The common thread in all of this, is the dangerousness of public belief in their superiority.
Templeton: This is why groups like the Religious Right are so frightening.
Russell: Don’t get me started. Now, here’s a question. How do you take a child and make him believe that he is someone who is superior? And that his superiority gives him permission to rob and rape and kill?
Carey: I don’t know that it even has to do with that.
Russell: There is a cultural element to it.
Carey: Yes, but it’s to do with groups, isn’t it? It’s not to do with, you know, you love your little boy to death, and you give him all this great self esteem and he grows up to think he’s got the right to do anything he wants. What we’re talking about is not the way one person behaves, but how groups behave. It’s how tribes, and groups, and families and everything work. We are we, and the others are other. And then one group strikes out against another. It’s happening all the time. Look at Bosnia. Look at Kosovo. We’ve always done it. It’s horrible.
Russell: Of course. You can’t explain Hitler by saying, ‘It was this,’ or ‘It was this,’ or ‘It was this.’ It was all of those things. It wasn’t either or. It was and, and. It was all of those things at once.
Carey: I think, sadly it’s part of being human. Human beings keep on doing this kind of thing. It’s part of who we are. We are continually, continually, continually doing these things. What is it about us? And how do we stop?
Russell: So it was many things. But I honestly believe that a lot of it was the human equivalent of fear biting.
Carey: Fear biting. Is that a commonly used term?
Russell: It is when talking about dogs. Dogs who bite are commonly called ‘fear biters.’ They are animals that have been abused to the point where their first reaction to any stress is to bite. And I think that when you find people who are fundamentally afraid–and it may be fear of insignificance, fear that they really are at the bottom of the heap, maybe because they deserve to be, or fear of being hit before they have a chance to hit first. There was a great amount of physical violence against children in this generation that came up with Hitler, that was so vulnerable to Hitler’s appeal. I think fear is at the root of a great deal of violence.
Carey: I’ve just been reading this biography of Coleridge, by Richard Hart. It’s an amazing book. And there’s Coleridge traveling around Germany in, what? 1798. And he was talking about the really horrible anti-semitism in Germany and the awful way Jews were being treated–and this was 1798. So anti-semitism was present way back in the time of Coleridge.
Russell: I just did a talk for the Cleveland Archdiocese Catholic women’s group, just before I left. I was their keynote speaker at this spirituality conference, and somebody asked how I felt about Jesus. I had to say, ‘Look, I don’t have a lot or feelings about him, but I do get nervous around Easter.’ And there was this big laugh. And I think the laughter was the assumption that, because I am apostate, having been raised as a Christian and having rejected Christianity, that I was worried somehow about my faith. But the rest of my sentence was, ‘Because that’s when the attacks on the synagogues come.’ And there was just silence in the room. No one knew how to react. And I said, ‘Look. I’m not blaming all anti-semitism on Christians, although God knows you’ve done a lot of it. Anti-semitism goes way back, It was there among the Egyptians, and the Greeks, and the Romans, We’ve pissed a lot of people off through history. In Judaism, I think, there are a lot of things that tend to make people deeply uncomfortable. Probably the central issue is that we seem so clear and sure that the god that other people worship is our God.
Carey: I’d like to suggest that a lot of anti-semitism comes from a certain Christian arrogance, too.
Russell: Sure. They come along and write this book of scripture, appropriate ours, but call it the Old Testament while theirs is the New Testament. The new improved Testament. But anti-semitism is very old, and it goes back long before there were Christians.
Templeton: I’ve been rereading Exodus lately, preparing for a panel discussion nest week on the subject of Moses in the movies.
Russell: Oh God.
Carey: Speaking of Moses, I’ve been thinking a lot about something. I was in Chile, having another harrowing experience everyday, trying not to cry every minute for ten days. It was quite recently–with a South African writer, and Australian writer, and a Chilean writer. It was extraordinary. A life changing experience. We went around doing these series of colloquium, in various cities. We ended up in this one coastal area, where–this is it’s claim to fame–there was the biggest earthquake ever recorded–now, what happened on this day in 1960 something.
[Russell uses her arms to pantomime waters parting.]
Carey: Yes. The waters parted. Yes. That’s exactly what happened. And the local detail is sort of amazing. It’s a place of beautiful rolling green hills, and a harbor and a river. When the earthquake struck, causing huge destruction, and then the sea sucked out, far, far out. And what was revealed? Ancient shipwrecks. Ancient. Now, most of the people, being sensible folk, headed for the hills, because they knew that what goes out comes back in. And indeed, believe me, I saw ships that were picked up when the waters did rush back in, and these ships are now imbedded in the hills way up river. But some people did go down to these old galleons to look for treasure. And then the waters came back in with a rush, and that was that. So when I think of Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea, now I know what it was. It must have been a thing like this.
Russell: You know what’s interesting? There actually is an Egyptian account of what we celebrate as Passover, only it’s from the Egyptians’ point of view. It’s from long ago, picked up from written records over three thousand years old. And their version of the story is that the Jews, while enslaved in Egypt, had been making a lot of converts to monotheism. So the Egyptian gods were getting fewer and fewer followers. People were switching over to a one-god form of theology. So the Egyptian priests rose up against the Jews and threw them out of the country. We didn’t demand to be let go, they threw us out because we were a bad influence. Since so few people were doing sacrifice to the Egyptian gods, those gods were liable to get angry soon, so the Egyptians lives and way of life were at risk. So they tossed us out on our ear.
Carey: I like that story better than the other one.
Russell: I thought it was a wonderful story. ‘Hey, the Egyptians are letting us go. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ And my feeling is: and, and, and. Both are true simultaneously.
Templeton: I’d have liked to have seen that in Prince of Egypt.
Russell: You know, we were talking earlier about our books being adapted to the screen. I took my 13 year old son to see Prince of Egypt.
Carey: You didn’t.
Russell: I did.
Russell: Did. And we enjoyed it.
Carey: I’m going to leave.
Russell: Oh stop. So as we were walking out of the theater–and they’d basically made the movie into a buddy picture, not about God and Moses, but about Moses and Ramses looking buff together with California accents–we walk out of this thing, and my son said, ‘Mom. Not even God could get a faithful screen adaptation.’
Carey: That’s marvelous.
Templeton: Talking about generalizing your message, Prince of Egypt fell all over itself to please every religion with some claim to Moses. Have you checked the Prince of Egypt web site? There are study guides posted, “For religious use of the film,” that are available in a dozen different religious flavors. There’s a Catholic study guide, a Mormon study guide an orthodox Jewish study guide, a Islamic study guide. You name it, they’ve got it.
Carey: You mean the studio provided these guides? Ahhh, shit. That’s amazing.
Russell: And you have to ask yourself, how many people ran out after the film and bought the book? That’s the big question.
Templeton: Bought the book. [Laughing]. Well, I went back to the book. I reread Exodus, thinking, ‘Wait a second.’
Russell: [Laughing.] Wasn’t Moses a much older man? And didn’t he stutter? And where’s God? He completely drops out of the movie as a character, but God the main character in our version.
Templeton: Val Kilmer did the voice of God too, just like Charleton Heston did in The Ten Commandments.
Carey: We all know God doesn’t talk like that.
Templeton: What does God talk like?
Carey: Only you would know that.
Templeton: Not anymore. Actually, I’m a former-fundamentalist. Years ago, in high school, I was severely born-again, and remained that way for about seven years. Now I look back on that experience as if I’d belonged to a cult. And when I began to see it in terms of being a “cult survivor,” I was able to put things in perspective.
Russell: Things became clearer to you.
Templeton: Yes. And though my experience was nothing like what happened to the people in this film, I did flash on something during the film. Last year, I traveled back to Southern California, to the church that I’d belonged to, as part of a story I was doing on my experiences as a born-again. I walked through those same doors, and talked to some of the same people. And all these old memories and emotions and even a lot of the pain of that time came flooding back. Like the ocean returning after being pulled away by that earthquake. In the film, The Last Days, we saw the survivors each return to their villages, their homes, and to the camps they’d been held in. And they brought their families, their children, their grandchildren, and showed them those places. I liked that they didn’t go back alone, just they and the camera crew, but that we saw them experiencing this flood of memories with someone they loved, someone they could pass the memories down to.
Carey: I think those were among the most moving moments in the film. To see the children and grandchildren trying to comprehend what had gone on there.
Russell: When I went back to Italy to do research for the third book, I went with a man named Alfred Feldman, who was a nineteen year old Jewish boy when he came across the Alps, in occupied Southern France, in 1943. Southern France was occupied by the Italians, and the feeling was, that if you could get over the Alps and into Italy, the war was over. You were safe, finally. Everybody believed this. But of course, when they got across they woke up on September 9, and realized that they were now an occupied country. Everything had changed. It had all turned on a dime. I was walking with Alfred Feldman, who had come across the Alps with the Italian fourth army, and he took me step by step, through the little villages where he was helped, we found the little seminary where he and his father were hidden, because at the beginning of the occupation they felt that they could get people out of Genoa via the sea, and could get them down below the line. The assumption was that the Americans would be there at any minute. ‘Any minute now. A week or so, It will all be over. The Americans will be here.’ What was interesting to me was, that when Alfred went back to these places where he’d been hidden, what everybody we met said was, ‘Oh. We were so worried for you. We were so worried you hadn’t made it.’ And they pointed to these tiny little caves on the sides of sheer drops of mountains, where they had hidden Alfred and his father while the troops were moving through, going house to house, searching for Jews. Nobody ever said anything about, ‘We were so frightened that we’d be caught. We were afraid we’d be killed for helping you.’ Their focus was entirely on the people they’d been helping to protect. And to see that 55 years later. I watched their eyes. I watched their faces. At no time during any of these conversations did they reveal that they’d been concerned for their own safety. It was just remarkable.
Carey: So, we’ve talked about how anti-semitism has been around forever, all over. I wonder, listening to you before, if the degree of anti-semitism in Italy was considerably less than it was in Germany or other places.
Russell: Absolutely. At the time, there was a Jewish admiral in the Italian navy, there were Jewish generals in the Italian army. Starting from the unification of Italy in the late 1800s, the Italian Jews were given full citizenship. So they are enormous patriots. It was eerie to listen to the Hungarian witnesses talking about how proud they were to be Hungarian citizens. Not just Jews, but Hungarians. And of course they were completely assimilated. They looked like everyone else, there was a lot of intermarriage.
Carey: But what influence did the Catholic Church have. How did the church fit into all of this.
Russell: Okay. Good question. The Catholic Church. Let me tell you, Pope John Paul II is loved by the Italian people. He’s more popular there than anywhere in the world. They love him. But what country has the lowest birth rate in the world? Italy. Obviously, someone in Italy is using birth control. So the Italians love the Pope, but they pay no attention to him at all. The Italian attitude toward authority is very different from the rest of Europe. In Germany, authority figures are almost deified. German respect for authority goes very deep. In Italy, a disdain for authority goes very deep. The last time they were well-governed was what, Emperor Hadrian? You have to go back 1800 years to find a really good government in Italy. Getting around the government is like a national indoor sport in Italy. So one word from the authorities in Rome, and everybody goes on about their business exactly as they please. Italian Jews, by the way, are typically not businessman, as they were in Germany. Italian Jews are typically in civil service jobs, or in the military. Because the Jew’s history in Italy is to have been part of the war for unification, that followed Garibaldi, and so on.
Carey: My son the soldier.
Russell: Exactly. My son the soldier. My son the captain. My son the general. So Italians were in a very different place at the beginning of World War II. They had a Jewish prime minister, and about 20 percent of their population were university professors. So scholarship, civil service and the military was where you found Italian Jews. Even though the Jews were a tiny minority, everybody knew somebody Jewish, respected somebody Jewish. And because there was a lot of intermarriage, every Italian Jew had Catholic relatives. That was the upside of intermarriage. The Jews had somebody to go to for help.
Carey: Yes. Well. That didn’t work out so well in Hungary did it?
Russell: I don’t know if there was very much intermarriage in Hungary though. I’m really not sure.
Templeton: You know what’s disturbing, maybe this tells us something about human nature. We’ve just watched a film jammed with memorable moments, unforgettable stories and people. The woman hiding the diamonds from the guards in the camp. The man almost unable to step forward when he saw what remained of the ovens. The soldier showing the Mennorah made of nails from Auschwitz that had been given to him by one of the prisoners he’d helped. All these amazing images. But still, the face that I’ve flashed on the most often in the last hour, was the face of that Nazi doctor.
Russell: Dr. Munsch. He’s a fascinating character, isn’t he?
Carey: What’s frightening about him is his terrible total ordinariness.
Russell: Yes. I’ve seen him before. He’s rather well known. I do think he deserves some respect though, for how forthcoming he’s been, for the way he’s handled what can only be a devastatingly ugly part of his own personal history. He was a young doctor at the beginning of the “Nazi Vision.” I don’t remember everything I’ve read about him, but I do remember one extraordinary story that he told about being in Auschwitz, where one of the camp cooks had come to him and asked for a pass to go to the place where the bodies were. And the doctor, Dr. Munsch asked why do you want to go there, and the cook said, ‘We’re short on meat.’ And Doctor Munsch said, ‘Surely you don’t feed the prisoners meat?’ and the cook said, ‘Oh no. This is for the officers.’ That was when he asked for a transfer out.
Carey: Well. Who knows what went on there?
Templeton: What I wanted from Dr. Munsch was an apology. When he’s sitting with the one woman survivor, who lost her sister and mother in the camps, I wanted him to say something apologetic. But he was so cold and businesslike.
Carey: This is a guy who’s been tried for war crimes, right? And he’s also agreed to do this thing, he will sit before a camera and answer questions.
Russell: He’s the tame Nazi doctor.
Carey: That’s his job. It’s not his job to apologize. It’s his job to answer questions and to tell stories about what happened in Auschwitz.
Russell: I can’t tell you, from other documentaries I’ve seen him in, if I’ve ever detected any sense of remorse on his part. He does feel that, under the circumstances, he was a moral man, performing harmless experiments on the Jews so that they’d be kept from the ovens. They’d come to him instead for his ‘harmless experiments.’ So he does, in some ways, see himself as a rescuer of Jews. And he may have saved lives. There may even be some ethical reason to accept this.
Carey: There may be. Whichever way it goes. Whether he’s actually saved lives or he’s merely come through this and been acquitted of criminal charges, he doesn’t feel that it’s incumbent on himself to apologize. And that’s very disturbing. When you look at his face, there’s a horrible mystery about that man. What the apology would do is to help diminish that horrible mystery. We’d be able to put it to bed a little more easily.
Russell: He was in another documentary, I think it was called ‘The Nazi Doctors.’ It was about the idea of ‘racial hygiene,’ and the fact that it was doctors who essentially invented Nazism. It meshed with what Hitler wanted to do very well. It took his psychosis and meshed that quite nicely with their biologically-based racism. They thought of what they were doing as public health. And Dr. Munsch, in his various interviews, presents himself as someone who asked for a place to practice medicine outside the cities. He wanted to get out into the country where it was nice. So they offered him this position at Auschwitz. He says he never actually did anything bad to any of the patients. But he admits to have done ‘The paperwork.’ And that, of course, is one of the ways the Nazi’s found to make this all acceptable to people; they divided the murders up into steps. So everyone can say, ‘Oh, all I did was turn a little knob.’ ‘All I did was wave the train through.’
Templeton: Do you believe he’s telling the truth, that he really did only harmless experiments on these people?
Russell: I don’t know.
Carey: See, that’s the truly horrible thing. You really can’t know. So we end up looking at ourselves and thinking, Who am I looking at? What am I capable of?
Russell: In my book, my Nazi doctor is someone who started off practicing medicine, was involved in the euthanasia program, and was eventually transferred to Auschwitz. He comes to a priest to confess, that he has personally killed 9,836 people. What do you do with that? The priest says, ‘What do you expect from me? What penance can I give you?’ Let’s take Dr. Munsch. Let’s say that he did, in fact, find himself being swept along with this tide, and that he did commit atrocities. We have very little concept of what it was like to be a German back then. We know that they were using propaganda. If you are in a world where everyone and everything, from the newspapers to your friends and family, were presenting this as the right thing to do, what do you do? My great fear is that by making my character understandable, I am making him sympathetic.
Carey: I think the most important thing though is to show that the monster is not that other person, you know, the monster is us. And if you are doing that, then you are doing something really important. It’s too easy to merely make them one-dimensionally evil.
Templeton: Evil is never one-dimensional.
Russell: There’s this horrible idea in my mind that they might want to make this new book into a movie. Now that I’ve done it once–I’ve signed a contract allowing my book to be made into a film and seen what they tried to do with it–I’m going to insist on a ‘no-cliché clause’ in my next contract.
Carey: Good luck.
Russell: It will say, ‘The Italians are no Mafiosi, the Jews are not tragic victims waiting to be rescued–in Italy, in fact, they were part of their own salvation–and the Nazis are not psychotic monsters.
Carey: Well, I tell you what. If you get a contract like that, you can publish it, and every writer in the world will buy it just to read it, and you’ll make a fortune.
The Last Days plays Thursday, April 15, at 7 and 9 p.m. at Washington Square Cinema, 219 S. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma; 762-0006. The film plays May 3-6 at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454/1222.
Web extra to the April 15-21, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.