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February 24, 2006Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 34

 When they make a film about Iraq, what will it say?
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

David Irving, British historian, has just been sentenced to three years in an Austrian prison for teaching that the Germans never set out to destroy the Jews and that the Holocaust was simply a figment of Jewish propaganda. History is history, truth is truth, the verdict implied.

At the same time, the Germans themselves have released a new film on the last days of the Third Reich that unmasks a dimension of the Nazi world view that may have been responsible for the Holocaust in the first place.

This is not a film review. Media people and film critics cover film as a contemporary art form with amazing depth and scope. But we are now light years away from Charlie Chaplin and his character, the Little Tramp. In our time, film has taken an eerie turn away from slapstick to reality. So marked is the move that we are at the point where it is often difficult to tell historical reality from filmic literature anymore.

When that happens, it's time to forget the technical niceties of film criticism, perhaps, and ask ourselves where the film ends and we ourselves may well begin.

For instance, there's a new film, "Downfall," a German release, that will probably not play many major theaters, if any at all, despite its Academy Award nomination as Best Foreign Language Film of the year. It comes with English subtitles so it will surely be relegated to the art film route. Pity. Remembering that in the last election season pastors handed over church directories to political partisans, viewing this film could raise some pertinent questions about the making of political idols and the wisdom of ideological interference in the development of other countries. I repeat: Questions. Not answers.

"Downfall," a Constantin Film, captures the last days of World War II. Hitler has taken to his Berlin bunker as the Russians march on the city. The presentation is deft. He is a broken, ranting man in total denial of what is going on around him. He seems to have no interest, no concern for what he has done either to himself or to the German people, or to the foot soldiers outside in the mud. He had, he says mournfully, "great plans for the world."

But he is not a cartoon character, not a stereotype of a blunderer gone berserk. He is, as a matter of fact, a rather winning character -- kind to his dog, avuncular to his young female secretaries, crushed under the weight of war. There are moments in the film when you are embarrassed by the fact that you are beginning to like the man -- or at least to feel sorry for him.

But he is also stubborn, unreal, out of touch and overbearingly cocksure.

A few generals on his inner council try in vain to press him to "the political solution" -- to negotiating for peace. But the others, the Old Guard, are bunkered, too -- in their minds. They refuse the very discussion of surrender.

At the same time, the other more junior officers, like lemmings on their way to the sea, seem trapped by their patriotism, by their deference to the leader. They know they're losing. They know they should quit this madness. But they cannot bring themselves either to argue the point or to disappear, maybe in fear for their lives, maybe because by now they have themselves become more the system than the citizens.

Whatever their individual reasons, it has been so long since they thought an independent thought that even after Hitler himself commits suicide they go on fighting -- pathetic, unthinking pawns in a hierarchical system built on a feeling of natural superiority and a sense of invincibility even as they are losing.

At the end, it is clear; the film does not simply record the downfall of Hitler. It exposes, in some kind of political pornography, obscene for its arrogance and moral decrepitude, the downfall of the entire political system.

It is a demonstration of what happens to a nation that substitutes idolatry of the leader for responsible citizenship. Little by little, the film unravels before our eyes the downfall of the military system and its loss of integrity and truth.

It unmasks the fundamental flaw in the population itself that uncritically accepted the groundless rhetoric of a rampageous leader who has committed one international crime after another in their name. "The people will do nothing," Goebbels screams at the generals. "The people have chosen. They gave us a mandate and they will do as we say." Hitler, the arch-autocrat, after all, had been elected and no one had crossed him since. A democratic election, it seems, does not guarantee the democratic process.

Finally, then, we watch the downfall of the country by its own hand.

Here's what worried me. The morning after I saw the film front pages of papers around the world carried pictures of raging crowds celebrating the attack on 50 Sunni mosques in reprisal for the bombing of the Golden Domed Al-Askaria mosque in Samarra, one of the four major religious shrines of Iraq. Built in 836 A.D, it is the burial place of two imams who were direct descendants of the Prophet.

It's enough to give any ideologue pause. We went into Iraq, we believe, with the best of motives. We had "plans for the world," too. We told ourselves we were liberating a people from a dictator and spreading democracy. We called it "America's moment."

Now Iraq is close to civil war. Religious factions are in contest for what had been a secular state. Thousands and thousands of people have died at both U.S. and Iraqi hands. Television programs in Europe, as well as around the world, trumpet the issues of the 10 prisoners at Guantanamo who have been charged with war crimes and the 390 who have not but are still being held four years later without lawyers, without trials, without charges. They are still investigating the United States' "outsourcing of torture" to prisons in Eastern Europe. They are still showing pictures of U.S. brutality.

The questions are clear: Have we really solved anything? Are things really better there? Are we ourselves facing reality? Are our own leaders out of touch? Is anyone in Washington really willing to discuss questions like that openly? Does anybody dare to ask them? Or are we substituting the tradition of "getting behind the president in wartime" for getting behind the values that once made us a great and peaceful nation?

From where I stand, "Downfall" is a movie that stirs those kinds of questions. Maybe we all ought to see the film before it's too late, before our own downfall as a nation in the minds of people across the world is complete. Don't worry that it's in German with English subtitles. The problem is that you may understand this one all too well.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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