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SCREENING ROOM

Recalling the fate of Armenians

May 15, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Germany and the Secret Genocide," J. Michael Hagopian's rigorously researched and damning indictment of Germany's role in the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks during World War I, will have its gala premiere screening tonight. It is the second installment in Hagopian's "Witnesses Trilogy," involving 20 years of research to date and interviews with 400 survivors. (Of the 11 who appear in this film, interviewed in the 1980s and early '90s, only one is still living.) Hagopian, who holds a doctorate in international relations from Harvard, founded the Armenian Film Foundation in 1979 to document Armenian culture and instill pride in Armenian youth.

Drawing upon not only the survivors' memories but also a vast array of documentation, including extraordinary Holocaust-like photographs, Hagopian shows how the Armenian people were caught between two imperial powers at the outbreak of World War I: Germany, intent on constructing a Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad to pursue its expansionist goals; and Turkey, intent on shoring up the failing Ottoman Empire at the expense of its substantial Armenian population, which at that moment was experiencing a cultural renaissance.

More specifically, Turkish political fears that Armenians might demand their freedom dovetailed with German ambition and racism. The result was a massive deportation that became a death march in which 1.5 million Armenians died. What is most revealing about this notable and persuasive work is how Germany's deep involvement in virtually every aspect of the genocide seems but a warmup to the Holocaust: the insistence on Armenian racial inferiority and the use of deportation, concentration camps, slave labor and even extermination by poison gas.

On the subject of the Holocaust, Liz Garbus' "The Nazi Officer's Wife," which launches the Laemmle Theaters' latest "Bagels and Docs: New Jewish Documentaries" series, is yet another remarkable Holocaust survivor account in a seemingly nonstop flow of such films, even though 58 years have passed since the end of World War II. This film is as eloquent as its subject, 89-year-old Edith Hahn, whose story of survival is amazing.

Hahn was born into a solidly middle-class assimilated Jewish family in Vienna in 1914, but with the rise of Hitler, the status of Austrian Jews deteriorated so rapidly that by June of 1936 Hahn was forbidden to take her final exams for her law degree.

Her love for a young man whose mother was Catholic and whose late father was Jewish stopped her from emigrating to Palestine with two younger sisters. She was forced to work as an agricultural laborer in northern Germany, and she lost her widowed mother to deportation. Returned to Vienna shortly after her mother's departure, she decided to remove her Star of David and go underground rather than risk deportation herself.

Her life thereafter turned into an adventure filled with as much pluck as luck. She ended up in Munich with a false Aryan identity, a job as a Red Cross nurse and an unexpected romance with a handsome young German, a Nazi of privileged status whom she married when she became pregnant and who became a German officer when he was drafted in September 1944, despite blindness in one eye.

Hahn's story is loaded with ironies and contradictions, and she emerges as a woman with the intellectual sophistication to integrate all of them. She's not ashamed of what she did to survive -- "It's the Nazis who should be ashamed," she says. She has a unique perspective on the complexities and unpredictability of the human heart.

*

Screenings

"Germany and the Secret Genocide"

Tonight, 7:30

Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 5230 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

(805) 495-0717.

"The Nazi Officer's Wife"

Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500 "Under the Fluttering Military Flag" and "Black Rose": Sunday, 5 p.m.

American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

(323) 466-FILM

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