No, he wasn’t eager to make this film, says Matti Geschonneck. The 69-year-old director of The Wannsee Conference hesitated for a long time. ‘How do you do such a terrible subject justice? How do you find the right tone?’
Understandable questions, because The Wannsee Conference is a report of the infamous meeting of Nazi leaders where the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jew question’ was on the agenda. In about an hour and a half, interrupted by a light lunch, on 20 January 1942 in a beautiful villa on Berlin’s Wannsee, fifteen senior officials decided the horrific fate of millions of Jews.
Geschonneck, who comes from a German acting family, has made dozens of films, mainly for German television. Never before had he felt so insecure. ‘I thought it was an immense responsibility to film that meeting’, he explains. “It is the greatest crime Germany has ever committed, the greatest crime imaginable at all. The Wannsee conference was the start of an industrial mass murder.’
According to Geschonneck, the bottleneck for the film adaptation was in striking the right atmosphere. “What happened was unimaginable, but it happened in a businesslike way. The invitation stated what was on the agenda and it was done within two hours. I could only imagine the film as what the Wannsee conference was: a meeting. Those fifteen men arrived there, consulted, and then went back to work or family.’
So Geschonneck decided to film it, from start to finish, in the villa in question on Wannsee – today a memorial. Bare, without bells and whistles, without film music too. ‘I thought the latter was very important, but it was also risky. Music is such an important tool to keep a movie going and to make it exciting. Music is seductive. That’s exactly what I didn’t want.’
Only by keeping it as businesslike as possible, the director thought, could the calculating chill of the Nazis be conveyed. And was he also able to show something of the shocking naturalness with which the assignment, from Hermann Göring, was carried out by those present. The question was not whether millions of Jews should be murdered, the question was how and by whom.
Reinhard Heydrich, the highest Gestapo chief under Himmler, was the leader of the assembly. In addition, many SS men (including Adolf Eichmann, responsible for ‘Jewish affairs’) and representatives of various ministries were present. They had to hand over some of their responsibilities to Heydrich, so that the SS could lead the operation.
This led to official discussions. ‘Different parties that were actually competing with each other had to work together’, says Geschonneck. ‘It was about leadership, about power. And for career, of course: everyone wanted to appear in a good light with Hitler, who was said to be his “favorite child” to destroy the Jews. That is why some ministries found it difficult to relinquish powers, although in the end they did not object. The question was: who is the cook here, and who is the waiter?’
The film follows historical sources as closely as possible. Miraculously, minutes of the Wannsee conference have been preserved. They had once been circulated thirtyfold as a state secret, but all but one were destroyed before the end of the war. The forgotten copy turned up in 1947 among a collection of files from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is a fifteen page document, a summary of what is discussed rather than a verbatim report. It is not known exactly who said what. ‘It remains fiction’, Geschonneck emphasizes about his film. “We don’t know how they interacted. The film cannot lay claim to the truth, it is a representation of what it was like. But we do know what came out of it. Mass murder of Jews had already begun in 1942, and the construction of concentration camps had already begun, but the Wannsee Conference kicked off the systematic plan to kill 11 million Jews.’
The descriptive tone of the minutes also explains the difference with two previous films made about the Wannsee conference. There is a 1984 German television movie, which was based on the same play by Paul Mommertz that Geschonneck’s film also drew from. And there’s the HBO movie Conspiracy 2001, starring Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann. Broadly speaking, the three versions are similar, but there are subtle differences.
This is how in Die Wannseekonferenz from 1984 laughed and drank a lot, while the Nazis in Conspiracy more arguing. One of those present, Wilhelm Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery, resisted in Conspiracy initially against the ‘evacuation’ of Jews to the east, when he realizes that it is a fascist euphemism for mass murder. Thus in that film he is a relatively ‘good’ Nazi, a man with whom the viewer can identify a little bit between so much badness.
Geschonneck does not offer the viewer that empathic way out. In his version of history, Kritzinger is only concerned with the welfare of the German soldiers charged with the mass murder. Isn’t that bad for morale? And is it feasible to get rid of 11 million Jews? The massacre at Babi Jar in Ukraine, where more than 33,000 Jews were shot, has already taken place. A highly efficient, hard-to-repeat killing spree, Kritzinger calculates by heart.
For a moment, the bureaucrat Wilhelm Stuckart, State Secretary for the Interior, seems to be the one who opposes the plans, but that too is an illusion. He is particularly concerned about the impending changes to the Nuremberg racial laws, which he himself co-authored. In the discussion about who counts as a Jew – are those also half-Jews and quarter-Jews? – Stuckart shows himself to be a stubborn, arrogant civil servant.
Everyone who sat at that table was equally guilty, Geschonneck thinks. “Kritzinger and Stuckart may have argued a bit, but I think maybe those two are the worst. Stuckart was the intellectual of the company, Kritzinger was the oldest at 51 years old. They only wanted to protect their own interests. I think that’s perfidious.’
Most of the Nazis present were highly educated, civilized and religious, Geschonneck emphasizes. ‘A lot of lawyers were there. They were also young: often in their thirties, still early in their careers. That was the deciding factor for me in the way I portray them. We know Nazis from many movies as loudly screaming monsters, but what is that image based on? There are, of course, historical recordings of speeches and meetings, but you have to remember that they were often made as propaganda material. There is also an archive image, but that is rarer, of high-ranking Nazis interacting very calmly.’
In The Wannsee Conference is not shouted. The calm, normal tone of the conversation makes the content all the more shocking. “What I wanted to show is not a caricature of evil, but the horrific normality of that meeting,” says Geschonneck. “It brings events closer, I hope. It is not that long ago: eighty years. That was once the present. And war, alas, is never far away. Now it’s already at our front door.’
It’s an unpleasant, frightening idea, Geschonneck says, but evil isn’t something extraordinary, it can become self-evident. An apparently normal issue, discussed between the coffee, a salmon roll and a glass of brandy. “Evil is in us, it concerns us all. You always have to keep asking the awkward question of which side you could have been on yourself.’
German film director Matti Geschonneck (69) owes his first name to Bertolt Brecht’s play Herr Puntila and sein Knecht Matti† It was a role that his father, the well-known East German actor Erwin Geschonneck, played with great success on the Berlin stage. As a communist, Erwin Geschonneck was interned in 1933, during the Second World War he managed to survive several concentration camps.