"The Restless Conscience" by Hava Kohav Beller
Interview by Stewart Ain
Hava Kohav Beller's film The Restless Conscience, salutes the memory of the German resisters who stood up against evil, in spite of mortal danger to themselves and their families. Most of them were arrested by the Nazis, tried, and executed.
(Here is Helmuth James von Moltke.)
n 1981, the comments of a dinner guest had a great impact on the life of New Yorker Hava Kohav Beller. She literally “dropped everything” and the next 10 years she made trips to Germany five and six times a year on a mission that she frankly admits was an “obsession.”
Her goal was to record on film the stories of those who dared to challenge Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich, from the start of his rule in 1933 until his suicide 12 years later. She had to sell belongings, teach, work in an art gallery, conduct telephone solicitations for the Metropolitan Opera, and borrow money to finance the project, which was rejected for funding because it was considered “too controversial.” After its release last year, Beller’s film, The Restless Conscience, was nominated for an Academy Award, and has received awards from the Petra Foundation at the American Institute for Arts and Science, and from the American Film and Video Association. Beller has also been awarded the CINE Golden Eagle.
lthough she was born to a German Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, Beller insists that this project had nothing to do with her family background since she was only eighteen months old when her parents, Max Stern and Lotte Marcusy moved with her to Israel. “But the idealism that I learned while growing up in a kibbutz called Geva, at the foot of Mount Gilboa, gave me an affinity with the resisters. We were taught to be responsible for others, to stand up for justice, to fight for what we believed was right.”
Growing up in Israel, her mother never mentioned the Holocaust. But on one occasion, her mother’s expression spoke louder than words. It was an event that is seared into her memory.
“I remember that when I was a girl – years after the war ended – my mother got a letter from the Red Cross informing her that her mother had perished in Auschwitz. I still remember the expression on her face – one of pain, horror. It looked as if something terrible, very meaningful, had happened. She didn’t cry, but life drained out of her face. It was like a mask of death. The memory of the Holocaust was in her face. It was very vivid and it frightened me. I didn’t say anything. I had a sense she didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t talk, I didn’t ask.”
When she told her mother about the project in 1981, Beller says her mother “looked at me a long time and then said, 'I tried so hard to keep you away from all of that.' Beller says her mother refused to tell her about her life during the war, explaining “children can’t perceive their parents as people.”
Although her father encouraged her filmmaking, she never had a chance to seriously discuss the project with him before he died in 1982. Her mother died in 1984.
eller, speaking with a French-sounding accent that she says with a laugh she doesn’t know how she acquired, talks of an innocent youth. “As a teenager, I went to the United States to stay with my father and to attend the Juilliard School, where I studied music, ballet and modern dance.”
Beller became a professional dancer and choreographer, had her own dance company in New York and acted in off-Broadway productions of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Zoya’s Apartment and Steinberg’s Playing With Fire.
Along the way, she married Dr. Alexander Beller, a psychoanalyst, and they had a son, Thomas. Their marriage of 12 years was tragically cut short by Dr. Beller’s death.
Beller made a film for a multimedia production that also included dance and theater. Its brief run was successful enough that it prompted Beller to study filmmaking with Arnold Eagle at the New School for Social Research from 1979 to 1981.
She recalls that her education in filmmaking was a “wonderful” experience. She says she “made two short student films with him [Arnold Eagle] in 1980 and started on a film about German expressionist painters and their historical context at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was then that I found out there was German resistance to Hitler in the ’30s and ’40s.”
Beller, dressed in a large green sweater and pants, and whose dark hair has traces of gray, says she learned of the resistance at a dinner party in the spring of 1981 from Dorothea von Haeften-Steinhardt, the wife of a friend. In discussing her background, Steinhardt mentioned that her father, Hans-Bernd von Haeften, had been hanged by the Nazis for his role in the German resistance.
The sky fell in on me when I heard that. I did not know there had been an anti-Nazi underground. [Steinhardt] said her father had been a civil-service diplomat before Hitler came to power and that he stayed in the foreign office to be more useful to the resistance. He was part of a group of civilians who resisted Hitler from the beginning. By trying to enlist the aid of the Allies, England and France primarily, they tried to stop Hitler before the war. After the war broke out, he and his friends tried to stop the war and atrocities. He was eventually arrested, tried and hanged in 1944.”
Beller says she quickly found that few people outside Germany knew there had been a resistance, and that even people in Germany only had a cursory knowledge of it.
Once she learned that, Beller says, she put aside her film about German expressionist painters and flew to Germany. “I found it incredible that we did not know about the resistance and I was determined to make a movie about it. Expressionist painters could wait….”
“It was incredible to me that nobody here knew about the resisters. They had just disappeared, yet they did an extraordinary thing. They had a choice. They didn’t have to do what they did. Yet they did it knowing they were endangering their lives and the lives of their families. It seemed to me that it was not right that they should have sacrificed their lives and so few people knew about it. I wanted to learn who they were, why they did what they did, what obstacles they had to face and overcome.”
But it had been more than 40 years since World War II, and Beller says she knew she had to “race against time” to locate and film the aging people who were familiar with the resisters.
“I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t even speak any German, but one thing I did have was the phone number of a friend of my father’s. I had tea with her the next day and she said, “I have the right person for you.” She picked up the phone on the spot and I was invited for lunch the next day with the son of a resister.” This type of networking went on for 10 years as Beller looked for people who knew resisters.
Unlike resistance movements in France, Yugoslavia and elsewhere, Beller says, resisters in Germany “could not organize into a movement. It was an individual decision to resist. They did not come from one political party, and they came from different social and economic backgrounds.”
She says the Gestapo (German secret police) was “very effective” in uncovering subversive activities. The most resisters could do was form “loose groups because it was dangerous for resisters to know each other. As a result, there was a great sense of isolation. The support one gets from a group was missing,” Among the most effective resisters were those who remained active in the government and the military because they could use their senior positions as cover, Beller points out.
A unique photograph of the resister Adam von Trott zu Solz, his wife Clarita von Trott zu Solz, and their baby daughter. He tried to warn the British about the Nazi menace but was treated as a traitor.
y the time she finished the film in 1991, Beller had conducted 30 interviews with the families and friends of resisters – including five resisters themselves.
The interviews lasted between one and eight hours. “It was good for some to talk about it, while others were reluctant to speak. A few flatly refused to talk on film, but I told them that I would be back with my crew on such and such a date and when I returned, they all agreed to speak on camera.”
The film relies heavily on archival film clips and live interviews to reconstruct the resistance. “The subject needed no editorial comment,” says Beller.
One of the most compelling comments was that made by Axel von dem Bussche, who at the time was an 18-year-old officer in the 9th Infantry Regiment. “He was there when the German army entered Poland, France and Russia,” recalls Beller. “He saw things that happened and he did not respond to them. That was until he saw the massacre of Jews in Russia. That propelled him into action.”
In the interview, Bussche recounted witnessing the long lines of naked men, women and children as they were led into a pit to be murdered by black-uniformed SS. “And it took me some time to understand that extermination was going on, extermination of Jews,” he said. “Instinctively I knew . . . that some kind of traditional, accepted harmony had been destroyed.”
Says Beller: “He’s the Everyman – everyone of us who doesn’t respond to things we witness. But for him, it evolved. There came a point where he had to react. He decided to take the ultimate step – he volunteered for a suicide mission to assassinate Hitler.”
That was not an easy task. Explosives were hard to come by. An unexploded English bomb found in a battlefield was used for an explosive. The plan called for Bussche to wear the bomb under his clothes while presenting new winter uniforms for Hitler the next day. When Hitler came close enough, Bussche was to jump at him and explode the bomb.
“However, the night before Hitler was to arrive, the uniforms were destroyed by an Allied bombing raid and the demonstration was canceled,” says Beller. Bussche says in the film that it still pains him that he couldn’t stop the mass killings. “It is my responsibility and guilt that I am still alive.”
Beller stresses that the plots to kill Hitler were only part of the resistance effort and developed only after it became clear that the Nazi killing machine would not stop until Hitler was assassinated. “There were efforts to prevent Hitler form coming to power, and to overthrow him and bring him to trial for civil rights violations once he came to power,” she says. “There were also attempts in the 1930s to avert war by getting Britain and France to stand up to Hitler.”
Count Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, the deputy police commissioner in Berlin, his wife Charlotte, and their six children. Von der Schulenburg helped Jews escape from Germany. This photo was taken a short time before he was arrested and executed.
Other resisters, including General Hans Oster in military intelligence, Peter Yorck, a civil servant, jurist Hans von Dohnanyi, and Count Helmuth James von Moltke, an international lawyer, worked to get Jews out of Germany. And at a time when established churches offered no official opposition, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer publicly denounced Hitler and preached that Christianity demanded resistance to Nazism. “Only if you cry for the Jews are you permitted to sing Gregorian chants.”
Once the war began, it was increasingly more difficult for the resistance to operate. Hans von Dohnanyi is quoted as saying, “To swim against public opinion in your own country in times of victory is a very difficult thing to do.”
But the resistance continued with several resisters working within the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence Service, and in the foreign office. Adam von Trott zu Solz, a civil servant, traveled overseas and asked different nations to help in the resistance effort. President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to see him.
The resistance came to an end in 1944 with a series of show trials in Berlin in which at least 170 resisters were tried and convicted. Most of those profiled in the film were executed.
he film was not initially received with open arms. “There was great opposition to this subject on both sides of the Atlantic,” Beller says of her film. “There was silent negation in Germany, and a pronounced reluctance in North America to deal with the issues the film raised.”
It took seven years of filming and of screening “show reels” to potential supporters before funding was obtained. The National Endowment for the Humanities provided Beller with her first real funding. Then came grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the MacArthur Foundation. But she is still in debt and is hoping to recoup some of her expenses through videocassette sales, sales to television stations, and movie theater ticket sales.
“People are fascinated with evil,” Beller says, and admits her own fascination with that period of history. She spends much of her spare time reading about it, and is considering making another film. In the meantime, she is promoting The Restless Conscience and speaking of the important lessons that can be learned from the resisters.
“They made a moral and ethical choice. The odds were completely against them. Their chances of success were nil, and yet they did it. This film is a document about human beings who stood up against evil, in spite of mortal danger to themselves and their families. It goes beyond Germany and concerns us all.”
Beller says she often wonders what she would have done has she been in the shoes of the resisters. Would she have had the courage to do what they did? For that matter, how many of us would?
“For me what happened during the Holocaust is incomprehensible,” she says. “It’s a dark void. And yet I know that the Nazis were human beings, they were not another species. That means that this evil is in us all. It was crucially important for me to find people who stood up against [this evil], and who perpetuated the positive in the human spirit. That for me was essential.”
he film has been shown in the United States and in several countries overseas. Many concentration camp survivors who saw it, Beller says, “thanked me with tears rolling down their cheeks. The children of parents who had perished in concentration camps told me they only wished their parents had been there to see it. The children of Nazis came to me with tears in their eyes. They had been deeply moved, were shaken up, and expressed gratitude.”
In Russia, Beller says she was stopped on the street and thanked after the movie was shown on Russian television. She says many Russians “perceived it as an anti-fascist film. They identified with it, feeling that it was about themselves and their own difficult history.”
After it was broadcast in Germany last year, there were many who were upset that the entire film had not been shown. The movie is 113 minutes long, but German television edited it down to 95 minutes to fit into a time slot.
“I received a lot of praise after the showing. I’m still getting letters, most of them thanking me. Some were from German soldiers who tried to explain why they did not resist. Most of them said they were bound by the oath of loyalty they took to Hitler.”
In reflecting on her work, Beller says: “The film is about hope and about what one can do to stand up against evil. Young people should realize what can be done in times of adversity, and that even in the darkest times there is always light.”