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‘The Restless Conscience’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 12, 1992

"The Restless Conscience," Hava Kohav Beller's remarkable, Oscar-nominated documentary about anti-Nazi resistance in Germany between 1933 and 1945, is a heartbreaking historical work. Its subject is those German citizens who did not stand idle as National Socialism rose to power: those within the military and without who spoke out against the regime, attempted to subvert it and, later, when all other measures had failed, repeatedly tried to assassinate its leader. And the power of its revelations takes hindsight beyond 20/20 to a level of tragic clarity. It's a meticulous record of what might have been and, as such, a document of nearly overwhelming sadness.

The natural reaction to this chronicle of missed opportunities, of a past in which, at nearly every crossroad, the wrong turn was taken, is to look away. Watching it, it's hard to keep your head up, to keep it from sinking into your chest.

Countless examples are offered of what can only be called blameless but catastrophic miscalculations. On one occasion, the German army chief of staff, in an attempt to mount a military coup, sent an emissary to London warning the British government of Hitler's designs on Czechoslovakia and promising that if the British agreed to fight if an attack occurred, he would put an end to Hitler. The German army's disenchantment was growing and profound; a small group within the Nazi elite wished to seize control from their Fuehrer, and only a gesture of support from the British government was needed.

But both Chamberlain and Churchill ignored the warnings, implying that the messenger was a traitor. England, at the time, was still trying to reach an accommodation with Hitler. Also, no one could believe a member of the German high command could offer such secrets. And so Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, and the last, best chance for a coup was lost.

On numerous subsequent occasions the British would make similar misjudgments, as did the Americans, the French and the Dutch, who laughed off as preposterous the leaks they received from German intelligence prior to the blitzkrieg through Western Europe. As one woman testifies, the British could acknowledge resistance everywhere else in the world -- in Greece, in Yugoslavia -- but not within Germany itself.

As documentation for these conclusions, Beller, who took nine years to complete the project, uses still photographs and newsreel footage, but primarily, "The Restless Conscience" is presented as an oral history, through interviews with many of the participants and their descendants. And the theme that emerges from the material is the utter fragility of history. If only the British had investigated more thoroughly, if the Norwegians had been able to convince London of the existence of the student rebellion in Munich, if only the bombs placed in cognac bottles in Hitler's plane had gone off. If only ...

Each of the witnesses placed before Beller's camera tells a story of unfathomable pathos and drama. Fictional accounts pale by comparison. Perhaps the most compelling is the testimony of a Nazi captain who witnessed on the Russian front the long lines of naked men, women and children who were being led into a hole for extermination by the black-uniformed SS. With pained understatement, he describes the scene, then says: "And it took me some time to get that together, to understand that here was extermination going on, extermination of Jews. It takes some time." For him it was a turning point (he would later join the plotters), a moment when "the bottom falls out of everything. ... Instinctively, I knew ... that some kind of traditional, accepted harmony has been destroyed here."

Beller, who was born in Frankfurt and raised in Israel, captures the full impact of these words and these stories without judgment. Her methods are in the highest reportorial tradition; she knows that the facts are enough here, and she approaches them in a manner that is straightforward to the point of clinicism. The struggles with conscience and guilt shown here are monumental. One officer, who was asked to blow himself up with Hitler, tells of an encounter with his father, who when told about the plot said, "Yes, you have to do it. A man who doesn't take such a chance will never be happy again in his life."

Most of the resisters were killed, though some only after being subjected to public humiliation in vicious show trials. The footage Beller includes from these trials is devastating; it shows the full extent to which these men and women went against the current of their times. Though less comprehensive than Ophuls's "The Sorrow and the Pity," it explores the same heroism of spirit and, in doing so, deserves an exalted place alongside it.

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