William Bannert’s Die Erben, from Austria and West Germany, addresses the resurgence of fascist organizations in those countries at about the time the film was made. It focuses in particular on a German neo-Nazi organization that targets teenaged boys for recruitment. These impressionable, disaffected youths find the rebelliousness towards parents and identity crisis that are typical of their adolescence coinciding with the organization’s proffer of both a quasi-military substitute model of authority and a fierce identification with discredited Germanic history. This appeal to the boys’ capacity for self-pity, given here an especially grandiose application, is fortified by its incitement of their idealism, its revival, in effect, of the Hitler Youth movement. The cruel, violent and socially deleterious activities in which the teenagers are encouraged to participate, which include vandalism, beatings, even killings, provide a vent for their frustrations vis-à-vis the world, which, like much else in their current experience, taunts them by being out of their control at a time when they very much need to feel both other than powerless and in control. The organization provides a means for them to strike out at a world that seems, and largely is, indifferent to their enormous needs.
The film originated in an actual event that found Bannert the victim of such an assault as the boys perpetrate in the film. (Bannert co-authored the film’s script with Erich A. Richter.) In the mid-1970s he was among patrons in a Viennese café who were beaten up by a beseiging pack of young neo-Nazis. The incident, like numerous others at the time, was modeled on Kristallnacht, the Nazi rampage on two consecutive days in Germany in November 1938 that resulted in the trashing of stores and restaurants, the violation and burning of synagogues, the beating deaths of Jews, and the shipment of 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. Convincing its leadership that he was preparing an objective documentary about the movement, Bannert infiltrated one of the organizations, studying it from the inside for three years. Thus Die Erben is able to raise a general alarm on the basis of highly specific details.
Yet these details are not always convincing—this, despite the fact that Bannert had actually worked earlier as a documentarian. For example, there is a passage showing the boys at the organization’s youth training camp. One of their members, representing a Jew whom they may kidnap and murder, has been stripped and had his hands tied and a Star of David painted on his back. The other boys are instructed in the perfect way of executing the victim by point blank range pistol shot. One of the boys mock-shoots the pretend-victim, who, falling to the ground, mock-dies. Bannert succeeds in capturing the playful, slightly embarrassed mood of the boys, but this mood is made insufficiently comprehensible because he picks up on the scene too late. (Bannert, incidentally, edited the film himself.) To grasp fully this lighthearted scene, and to extract from it the requisite chill that should accompany its portrayal of such hateful, vicious preparations, we would really have to see the mock-victim’s undressing, the tying of his hands behind his back, and the painting of the Star of David on him. Without this introduction, the angled overhead shot of the naked boy being jabbed forward to his mock-doom is faintly ridiculous, and even irrelevant. It becomes just one of the film’s too many moments when the camera dawdles on a naked boy or a naked girl, apparently to satisfy the filmmaker’s prurient interest. To feel the weight of the evil that is being presented, we ought to have been given a fuller, more organic view of the process by which these boys progressively shed elements of their humanity (including their innocence) as they are trained by adults to become killer Nazis.
The film is even less convincing in its explanation as to why its 16-year-old protagonist, Thomas Feigl, is the way that he is. Mother, you know, is a witch. Tommy’s father, a self-made business owner whose status-conscious wife calls an “industrialist,” is ineffectual, interacting as little as possible with his two teenaged sons, except to beg his wife off the elder’s back. He seems oblivious to the existence of Ernst, the younger boy. Quiet Ernst, a loner, gets low grades, for which his mother castigates him, threatening to beat him unless he instantly raises them. When he proudly brings home a good grade from school, Mother isn’t impressed; she castigates him now for his pride, reminding him of all his previous low grades. But the woman’s principal target is Thomas, whom she appears to like even less, finding fault with everything about him from his disrespectful attitude to his unchanged clothes. (She wants him to dress cleanly not for the sake of his pride but so he won’t make a bad impression—one that might reflect poorly on her—at the “elite” school he attends.) It is the younger boy, though, who commits suicide. Mother is to blame; she made Ernst’s life hopeless.
All this is ridiculous. Adolescent suicide is an overdetermined act; the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that prompts it isn’t caused by Mom, or this or that, but by a complex of factors, each acting directly upon the vulnerable adolescent, and each interacting with the other factors, with the result of these interactions likewise acting upon the adolescent. Bannert tries too hard to make Mother the villain here, what with her never once praising Ernst for anything, including his earnest struggles inside the music practice room. This isn’t fair; Bannert makes the woman the way she is and then blames her for it! It is Thomas who discovers Ernst’s hanged body, and for a moment he seems human, devastated, screaming and crying, “Mommy!” But later he assaults his mother with her responsibility for her son’s death. The scene, well written, is an edgy, raw confrontation; but Bannert’s tone is false. Instead of showing that Thomas is striking out at his mother because of his own overwhelming sense of responsibility for Ernst’s death that he (wrongly) feels somehow he could have prevented, Bannert blatantly sides with Thomas in the verbal assault. This gross oversimplification is heartrending when one considers what a genuine family tragedy such a suicide would be. Worse, because Thomas has his neo-Nazi commitment, which wasn’t the case with his brother, the grotesque suggestion arises that such a commitment might have kept Ernst alive. Failing to think things through, Bannert thus backs into an outcome contrary to his own political intent, to wit, the possibility that neo-Nazism is a positive program for unhappy adolescents. (It gives them connection—to a group, to a cause.) Clearly, a more complex grasp of his material might have yielded a more coherent result.
Charly, whose background is working-class, is Thomas’s best friend in the organization. Bannert oversimplifies Charly’s family life as well. His abusive, alcoholic father rapes Charly’s sister, forcing a horrific confrontation in a bar between father and son, with Thomas tossed in lethally besides. I suppose that there is some sort of equity in Bannert’s slandering both the middle class and the working class, and I suppose there is a germ of truth in the idea that such disaffected youth are at least partly the products of miserable, convoluted, including sexually convoluted, home lives; but, coupled with Bannert’s availing himself of every opportunity to strip Thomas and Charly naked and to fix his camera on them in this state, the bug-eyed melodrama inherent in these family situations is too over-the-top to be edifying. Still, if one perseveres and wades through the material, one finds a shaft or two that could illuminate the school killings by U.S. teens in the 1990s and 2000s.
Certainly the hostility that classmates and teachers direct towards Thomas is a familiar element. But there are a number of even more pressing strengths to Bannert’s film. One is the stunning performance given by 15-year-old Nikolas Vogel as Thomas, one of four collaborations between him and the director. At age 24, Vogel was killed as a photojournalist on assignment in the Slovenian War. Since Thomas in the film, by some awful coincidence, is a budding photographer, Die Erben, on this score crashing the barrier between fiction and reality, has peculiarly absorbed the tragedy of Vogel’s fate, adding to the film an element of unending sadness and regret. On such an occasion an actor’s own circumstance becomes part of the film’s extended text. River Phoenix’s tragic outcome two years later has similarly become part of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), where the street hustler he plays also uses illegal drugs, and Vladimir Garin’s drowning death shortly after he played 15-year-old Andrei in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003) all the more haunts a film that revolves around the motif of drowning. At times, God seems the most caustic and brutal ironist imaginable.
Another one of the film’s strengths is Bannert’s use of fictional interviews to lend the film notes of compelling reality. The sit-down press interview of a national leader of the neo-Nazi organization—as it were, its political public face denying the group’s neo-Nazism (he exhorts instead family values)—establishes the technique while casting a savvy glance at the disparity between public profession and private agenda. But even more intriguing is the street interview of Thomas, whose outspoken opinions on behalf of the organization, once broadcast, lead to his dropping out of school. Thomas prefers the organization, explaining: “In school only the strong prevail. There is no real comradery.” Bannert uses these simulated interviews as a way of nudging fiction in the direction of documentary. Indeed, the documentary echo that attaches itself to these passages aims for a spillover effect. Bannert hopes it will help validate other scenes in the film as well.
There is an instance of another strategy that aims to stamp a fictional scene as “real.” The film opens with a brutal beating. On a vacant path, a solitary jogger is assaulted by a group of boys and men after he is forced to identify himself in a photograph the others put up into his face. At this point we scarcely know how to respond to what we are being shown. It turns out, we learn later in the film, that this opening is a flashforward. The victim is shown kicking over a placard advertising the neo-Nazi organization and being photographed by Thomas as a means of identifying the man for the sake of future retribution. The street scene is intercut with glimpses of the future assault, during which Thomas’s photograph is revealed to be the operative one and we learn for the first time that Thomas himself is among the thugs. The double presentation of this material—actually, the occurences partially overlap—has the peculiar effect of being self-validating, moving the highly fictional event into the realm of possibility. Moreover, the participation of the photograph—if you will, a faux-document—assists in generating this outcome.
Bannert’s film claims yet another strength—for me, its greatest strength. In the course of the film, it is made clear that the reunification of Germany is one of the goals of such neo-Nazi organizations. In the United States, at least, this reunification of East and West Germany, which came to pass after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, was widely processed and promoted purely from a bourgeois standpoint, because families would be reunited, and a political one, due to the anti-Communist stance of the U.S. in the Cold War. Voices raised in protest that such a reunification would abet the cause of nostalgic German nationalism, unleashing a new tide of anti-Semitism, weren’t listened to. The fall of the Berlin Wall was widely greeted, in the United States as well as the two Germanies, as a signal event, a cause for celebration. Now we know how dreadfully accurate, though, the warnings against reunification turned out to be. It is beyond calculation the enormous suffering that reunification has wrought, and one would indeed have to be an anti-Semite not to rue that the two Germanies were ever put back together again. While the anti-Semitic license that has swept much of the world in the 1990s and 2000s was overdetermined, that is to say, caused by a number of factors, the contribution made to it by German reunification is incontrovertible. (It reached even Portland, Oregon, where I live, where synagogues were vandalized and violated.) Bannert’s Die Erben, therefore, deserves credit for being the rare prominent movie to ring the alarm in this regard, to place the sought-after event in a truer, prophetic light, and to do so in such a restrained, backdoor, non-hysterical way. The greatest cinematic work about the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jürgen Böttcher’s documentary Die Mauer (The Wall, 1990), would take an entirely different tack, contemplating in the event Germany’s failure to embrace its own history by retaining the monumental artifact, and wondering about the fearsome frenzy that accompanied the dismantling; but looking beyond the fall to what would follow, Bannert’s film, even with its relatively meager artistry and almost nonexistent beauty, is hardly worthless.
Die Erben is mediocre at best, exploitative and nearly sensational; but it has its points. One of these, now, is the reminder it provides that German reunification was one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies.