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College Screens Disturbing Images of 'Swastika'

February 07, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — The images in "Swastika" disturb some people almost as much as the horrifying visual record of the concentration camps that emerged from the Holocaust.

Hitler gently petting his dog. Hitler hosting a children's birthday party. Hitler discussing "Gone With the Wind" with mistress Eva Braun. Hitler smiling and laughing, just like the guy next door.

The documentary, which screens tonight as the latest offering in the Saddleback College/National Archives "The Road to War" series, was denounced by Jewish groups and others as "pro-Nazi" when it premiered at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.

The banality of the images was seen as the worst type of revisionism--even though they were obviously authentic, critics felt they trivialized the evil of Hitler and his Third Reich.

That's a reaction that Bill Blakefield can understand, but only to a point. Blakefield, the film programmer for the National Archives in Washington and one of the series prime organizers, believes "Swastika" makes an important statement about Hitler and his times.

"By showing the daily life of the Germans and Hitler--the family celebrations, the public events, the simple routines--this film has a cumulative effect of revealing a society that has gone mad," Blakefield said during a telephone interview from his office in the nation's capital.

"It's a lesson in how immorality can take on the guise of day-to-day life. You see things like little swastikas hanging from Christmas trees (and everybody) enjoying the holiday, and you're almost agog at the footage."

But in 1973, it so outraged the public that Eva Braun's sister filed a lawsuit to prevent further screenings. Prominent Jewish newspapers also attacked it, leading to the film's limited release and eventual obscurity.

At the time, director Philippe Mora defended "Swastika" as significant because it showed Hitler, at least on the surface, as seemingly a normal man. Mora said people should remember how deceptive that is, and that future generations must question the image of their leaders.

As for the making of "Swastika," Blakefield said Mora and his researcher Lutz Becker gathered most of the footage from the National Archives, where it had been housed since the end of World War II.

Much was shot by Eva Braun, a home-movie hobbyist whose pastime often featured Hitler as her star attraction. There are also several scenes with newsreel footage of Hitler giving speeches and attending ordinary public events, all linked without the benefit of a narrator.

"Without the narration, you begin to see the madness for yourself in powerful ways," said Blakefield. "There are some really amazing moments, like when Hitler pats his dog and the dog sort of cringes . . . or when you see these strange contraptions, these swastika wheels that people would set on fire and roll down hills as part of celebrations."

He added that Mora concludes the documentary with uncompromising images of the Third Reich's brutality. "He caps everything off with scenes of (concentration camp) victims being bulldozed into open graves. These two or three horrific moments are his final comment on the German society. I think it's impossible to misunderstand the point Mora is making."

Blakefield noted that the screening of "Swastika" at Saddleback College may be the only opportunity for Orange County residents to see it. It's the property of the National Archives, a repository for important U.S. records that are not otherwise available for public inspection.

Lloyd Evans, Saddleback's dean of social and behavioral sciences and one of the series' organizers locally, said the Laguna Niguel office of the National Archives asked the college about a year ago to host the program.

The series, which continues Feb. 13 with the documentary, "The Good Fight," is being offered elsewhere in the U.S., but Saddleback is the only California location.

"Swastika," directed by Philippe Mora, will be shown tonight at 7 in room 210 of the Business and General Studies Center at Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Admission: free. Information: (714) 582-4733.

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