On the outskirts of the Nuremberg Trials: Nazis and former concentration camp inmates lived in a villa. Matti Geschonneck has filmed "The Witness House."
In the witness house, perpetrators, victims and fellow travelers of the Nazi regime meet in a very confined space. Picture: ZDF/Volker Roloff
He did not make it easy for himself. Twice Matti Geschonneck turned down the offer to take on the filming of the factual novel "The Witness House." "I had great respect for this complex subject," says the director. "There was, above all, the fear of not doing it justice. To repeat things often said, to violate taboos, to be politically incorrect."
In the book, published in 2005, journalist Christiane Kohl recounts an incredible episode that took place on the sidelines of the Nuremberg trials beginning in 1945. Shortly before the start of the main war crimes trial, the U.S. Army seized a villa on the outskirts of Nuremberg and housed witnesses for the prosecution and the defense in it.
Until 1948, perpetrators, victims and fellow travelers temporarily lived there (and in another house) under one roof. Thus it could happen that former concentration camp prisoners and NSDAP functionaries sat opposite each other at breakfast. The Americans hired the noblewoman Ingeborg Countess Kalnoky as housekeeper and gave her the order: "Make sure everything runs smoothly."
Producer Oliver Berben secured the film rights immediately after the book was published – and at some point his desired director agreed after all. "Something that is merely viewed from a respectful distance doesn’t get close to you either," says Geschonneck. "We therefore tried to take a more playful approach and use the bizarreness of the characters – aware that we were dealing with the darkest chapter in our history." That could have gone wrong, but it didn’t: the 106-minute film is one of the year’s most remarkable TV productions.
"The Witness House", Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, 8:15 p.m. on ZDF. Length: 105 min. drama, Germany, 2014.
Chamber play and thriller
Matti Geschonneck’s regular screenwriter Magnus Vattrodt played a large part in this. He created a chamber play with thriller elements and selected a handful of the more than 100 people who stayed in the witness house. Vattrodt allowed himself artistic liberties: Some of his figures are based on real people, in others he adapted typical characters. The Countess (played a bit too melancholy by Iris Berben) got a new name and a new vita, the constellation of people he presented never existed like that.
In the film, Adolf Hitler’s photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, Hermann Goring’s secretary Gisela Limberger, Gestapo founder Rudolf Diels and resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, among others, now meet. The viewer is not always told immediately who stood where. Only gradually are the identities revealed. There are no major confrontations between the opposing groups: perpetrators, hangers-on and careerists do the talking in the salon, victims and opponents retreat to the side rooms. A reflection of West German post-war society.
"The film is not superficially about the great war criminals, but about those people who lived closely interwoven with the powerful, supported their power, and helped make their crimes possible," says Geschonneck. "Without any self-reproach, they continued to live their lives with an astonishing matter-of-factness, were convinced of their probity. They survived well with their opportunistic gift. In the Nuremberg dock sat only a fraction of those who actually belonged there."
Repulsive and irritating
In Geschonneck’s "Zeugenhaus," the members of this opportunist faction now wax lyrical in sometimes brilliant dialogues about the Allies’ supposed show trial and the bad food; they embellish their resumes and praise the Fuhrer’s paintings.
Their entire behavior is at once repulsive and entertaining, irritating in the extreme and brilliantly played by actors like Udo Samel, Gisela Schneeberger and Tobias Moretti. These fellow travelers are not thoroughly evil people; some of them seem as if they had been taken from today’s everyday life. That’s what makes them so sinister. Their portrayal raises topical questions: Wouldn’t it all be just as possible today? How would one have behaved oneself?
What makes their self-righteous behavior shocking and outrageous is the contrast with the former concentration camp inmates living in the house: "My father’s life story certainly had an influence on the staging of these scenes," says Geschonneck. Erwin Geschonneck joined the KPD in 1929 and was imprisoned in concentration camps for seven years during National Socialism: in Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Neuengamme.
In the GDR, he was one of the most popular actors; he died in 2008 at the age of 101. Matti Geschonneck did not grow up with him, but had a close relationship with his father during the last 20 years of his life: "He never talked much about his time in the concentration camp, because it seemed almost impossible for him to portray these experiences in a comprehensible way.
Brutality among the prisoners
His attitude is felt in the film in some restrained dialogues." Above all, in a grandiose, almost haunting key scene towards the end, about which not too much should be revealed. It vividly portrays what Geschonneck also realized through conversations with his father: "In the fight for survival in the concentration camp, it wasn’t only SS people who were the enemy; you could also be among your own people who were beaten to death.
Of course, there was friendship and solidarity among the prisoners, but also betrayal and brutality among themselves. Those who prevailed survived with a heavy burden on their souls. The paradox: after the end of National Socialism, there was a sense of guilt more on the part of the victims."