July 11, 2009
Rachel Corrie Meets Horst Wessel at SF's Jewish Film FestivalBy Abraham H. Miller
Rachel Corrie was the naïve Marxist and International Solidarity Movement member who went into Gaza to put her body on the line to keep open tunnels that supplied suicide bombers with the means to kill Israeli civilians. Standing for hours in front of an Israeli military bulldozer that was demolishing these tunnels and the structures that led to them, Corrie fell into a dirt pile, unseen by the bulldozer driver, and was buried alive as he drove over it.
With some deceptive sequencing and distortion of photos, the ISM made it appear that the driver purposely drove over Corrie and crushed her. The Evergreen State University student subsequently took on the iconic status of a martyr. Her life, committed to facilitating the work of those who would take innocent lives, has become the source of poetry readings, an international play, and now, a documentary.
The other Rachels, the young women from Israel and the world over, who happened to be in the wrong place when the suicide bombers, whom Corrie was protecting, detonated their explosives, have only been remembered by those who mourned them. These deaths are a poignant reminder of the mass carnage that Corrie was assisting. In terms of the world's attention and concern, these have been lives of lesser value. There are no poetry readings for these young women nor plays or documentaries to commemorate their lives. Someone did put their names and pictures together in a flier that volunteers pass out to those rushing to sit through one of the propaganda forums presented as art to commemorate Corrie, who when not preaching hatred against Israelis was teaching the children of Gaza to burn American flags.
The iconic stature of Corrie has been promulgated by her parents who can be found, when not receiving awards from Palestinian groups, at churches and community centers adding to the myth of the sweet, idealistic, young woman who ruthlessly died at the hand of the Israeli Defense Forces, and, thus, symbolizing what the Palestinians are up against.
The ISM not only enables suicide bombings, it also lionizes the bombers. Rachel Corrie the radical Marxist who enabled the killing of innocents and belonged to an organization that idealized suicide bombers is absent from the propaganda forums.
Not surprisingly, at least to this writer, the Rachel Corrie myth has been widely supported by liberal Jews. British actor Alan Rickman, for example, was instrumental in bringing the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, to the London stage. Liberal Jews seem to have developed an unshakeable suicide complex.
But, long exposed to the absence of self interest generally among all liberals, even I was shocked when the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival announced that one of its selections for 2009 would be, Rachel: A Documentary, by Israeli-French cinematographer Simone Bitton. Not content with contributing to the Corrie legend through the sponsorship of this work, the festival will host a dialogue with Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother, after the showing. Whether the mothers of any of the Jewish Rachels, who died as a consequence of Corrie's actions, were invited to speak about their daughters went unmentioned in the SFJFF's announcement.
When a number of Israel activists expressed their outrage at this callous dissemination of propaganda, Peter Stein, the festival's director, justified the showing by its encouraging free expression and public debate.
To me, this is like showing the Triumph of the Will, and having Leni Riefenstahl present to answer questions about Hitler's force of personality. And then it dawned on me, what if our fathers and grandfathers had been of the mindset of Peter Stein? What indeed might the SFJFF film festival of 1946 look like? What if San Francisco Jews in 1946 were looking for a documentary about an idealistic young person who gave his life for the cause, a documentary that would encourage free expression and spirited public debate in the vein of the Rachel documentary?
I give you a fantasy analogy: Horst, A Documentary, by French-Palestinian (Jewish) cinematographer, Simone Baruch. In her own words, Baruch emphasizes that she is not a reporter. She is concerned with aesthetics, and the image of the beautiful young, tall, Aryan law student, taken from his loved ones in the prime of his life, seared her conscience. What motivated this handsome and talented young man to give his life for Germany and the Nazi Party?
Horst Wessel seen in this documentary, brought to you at the Jewish Film Festival to be shown at the Castro Theater, is not the Horst you think you know. Often depicted as just another tough street thug who went on rampages with his Thompson submachine gun, shooting up beer halls frequented by Communists, Horst was far more than this. Born to two activist parents, his father was the minister in one of Berlin's oldest Lutheran Churches, Horst imbibed their German nationalism. The father, ever active in the far right German National People's Party (DNVP), was a role model for Horst.
"Our understanding of Horst is marred by our Jewish bias," said cinematographer Simone Baruch. Horst was a good student who went on to law school. He was a gifted song writer. The Horst Wessel-Lied was the song of Nazis the world over and still is sung whenever ex-Nazis get together, even though it is outlawed in present day Germany. It is a beautiful song, said Baruch, seeming to hold back a tear. "I mean, do you realize that the SA marched into Kristallnacht singing the Horst Wessel-Lied? What other song could have been so inspiring? Der Fuhrer himself ...err I mean Hitler, had said that the Horst Wessel-Lied was as inspiring as the works of Wagner."
Opening to sell out crowds at the Berlin film festival, audiences jumped to attention and began singing with the sound track as the Horst Wessel-Lied was played half way through the documentary. Spontaneous "Seig Heils," burst forth from the audience as a young Communist is murdered early in the day of Horst's own assassination.
Critics have noted that there is little in the documentary about Horst's rabid anti-Semitism and his general political intolerance. "He hated Communists and liberals as much as he hated Jews. He was consumed with intolerance," said one critic. The violent nature of the SA is also down played.
Responding to this criticism, Simone Baruch said, "That is the Horst the world knows. I was looking for the real Horst: the Horst who wrote music and played the schwam, a type of oboe, popular in Germany of that time."
Indeed there are numerous scenes in the documentary of Horst leading SA Troop Number 34, while playing the schwam, and crisply attired in his brown uniform. "I was lucky to get old documentary footage of SA Troop 34 marching through the streets of Nuremburg. The big decision for me was whether to keep it in black and white or to get it colorized. I went with colorization because it did so much for Horst's hair," said Miss Baruch.
But the most dramatic footage is of Horst's funeral, mobbed by 30,000 zealous Nazis listening to Horst's mentor, Gauleiter Joseph Goebbles, giving the eulogy. As the camera spans the grief-ridden Nazis, one can see the ever corpulent figure of Hermann Goring dabbing an eye with his handkerchief.
"I think it is important for all of us, especially Jews, to understand that Nazis are also people who grieve for their loved ones," said cinematographer Baruch.
Peter Steinburger, director of the SFJFF, said that he knew that a certain element in the Jewish community would be less than enthused about the documentary, but the function of the film festival was to showcase the works of Jewish cinematographers and Baruch was considered an up-and-coming artist. The provocative nature of the documentary would get people talking, thinking and entering into conversations ripe with the exchange of intense ideas. "If Horst accomplishes that, well then, that is what art is about," Steinburger added with a sense of strong personal satisfaction.
Horst's mother has accompanied the film and will speak afterwards about the idealistic life and tragic death of her son. Since the death of her son, Mrs.Wessel has spoken to many groups about her son's idealism and his dedication to Germany. She has received awards from numerous German organizations on behalf of her work showing the human side of Nazism.
"We should understand," said Mrs. Wessel attired in a brown pants suit, with red and brown leather trim, "that Horst grew up on Judenstrasse(The Jews' Street), in the medieval Jewish neighborhood of Berlin. For someone whose father was a right-wing German nationalist this had a profound effect. Is it any wonder that Horst left his university studies to go to Austria for special SA training?"
Mrs. Wessel continued, "I don't know why we all can't just get along and create a better world. I mean, look at what the Jews did to the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. So many young men with families burned alive by Molotov cocktails. Is this a way to resolve a dispute?"
Rabbi Reuben Keshar, of Congregation Tikvah Tikvah, said that he supported the showing of the documentary. "There has been enough violence on both sides," said the Rabbi ever vaunted for his even handedness. "It is time that the Jews put this Holocaust thing behind them and began to feel some empathy for young men like Horst Wessel who were victims of the Versailles Treaty. There are no bad young men, only bad societal conditions."
Meanwhile Jacob Sanitary, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of SF, said he was totally unaware of the showing of "Horst," until it was brought to his attention by a Holocaust survivor living in Berkeley. "I really don't feel the arts are part of my portfolio," said Sanitary. "Besides that woman is a constant source of trouble. I don't know why she can't let bygones be bygones and get on the same agenda as the community organizations-which is not to make waves. After all, the War has been over for well over a year."
Trying to appease criticism, Peter Steinburger said that in an effort to show the festival's concern with Jewish issues, next week the festival will show captured Nazi footage of mass murders at Bergen Belsen, which will be followed by a new documentary, Eichmann: A Boy and His Trains.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and former chairman of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.