A dramatization of the notorious meeting in which the “Final Solution” of the “Jewish question” was effected, The Wannsee Conference deals more cogently with Nazism than just about any other film I’ve seen. Shot in a cool, measured style, in more or less real time (the conference lasted barely an hour and a half) the film demonstrates how the most heinous crimes can be reduced to euphemism and impersonal facts and figures and worse, justified with a kind of twisted moral imperative. The fact that the murder of millions of people is being discussed barely registers with all concerned.
It is precisely the way The Wannsee Conference implicates the viewer in the “banality of evil” famously described by Hannah Arendt that makes it such a powerful experience. While there is never any doubt what is being discussed, there is also a kind of soothing, narcotic effect produced by the discussion itself, as if the more talk there is about it, the further the reality can retreat into a cloudy amorphousness. Thoroughness works as a palliative that enables all to ignore what they are really discussing. Words like “death” barely figure in the conversation. Mass extermination is reduced to bureaucratic wrangling over authority, or logistical details about how many people can be loaded in each train to the East or which form of execution is most efficient. The insanity is never confronted because it has been rationalized.
If the objective presentation is the source of the film’s power and horror, it is also what makes it difficult to accept for anyone who thinks the only proper way to handle Nazism is to shriek “Bad, Bad, Bad!” at every opportunity. The Wannsee Conference most definitely does not say or even imply that Nazism was “good,” but the failure to make moralistic pronouncements or to provide easy emotional identification can upset those who would prefer to wallow in the sanctimony of political melodrama. Under the circumstances, such moral complacency becomes a luxurious form of indolence.
Ironically, there is a dramatic conflict of a sort in the film, but one hardly calculated to appeal to those seeking melodramatic simplicities. When Wilhelm Stuckart (Peter Fitz), State Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior argues in favor of “only” mass sterilization, his arguments feel like moderation itself. As Stuckart himself reminds us, however, he is the same official who formulated the infamous “Nuremburg Laws” that placed ever greater restrictions on the lives of German Jews. In short, his “moderate” position allows us to sympathize with a proven, extreme anti-Semite.
If the objection is that the film’s objectivity might make the credulous view The Wannsee Conference as an endorsement of what it depicts, that is precisely the point. Anyone can become a Nazi, or accept an equally objectionable world view if the presentation is right, particularly when the ideology encourages self-pity and blames someone else for complex problems. It is that horrendous recognition from which The Wannsee Conference courageously refuses to shrink.