On German National Day this year, October 3, the film “German Lesson” directed by Christian Schwochow and written by Heid Schwochow was released in German theaters. The original novel “German Lesson”, was published in 1968. The author, Siegfried Lenz, reflected in the book the contradiction between due diligence and personal responsibility under Nazi ideas, and criticised the German spirit for the promotion of loyalty. It has a considerable influence in the history of German literature, the film’s release on German National Day also emphasized the importance of the novel and its theme.
The story surrounds Siggi Jepsen, his father and his painter friend Max Ludwig Nasen. At the detention, the essay with the topic “The joy of obligation” has been assigned. An empty paper lies flatly on the table. Every other juvenile offenders have started writing. Sounds of pens stretching the papers. Siggi Jepsen has a lot to say and doesn’t know where to start.
His father, Jens Ole Jepsen is a policeman in the village in north Germany, who carries out the task ordered by the national socialist authorities obediently. Art works from artists with jewish background, with communist ideas, new objectivity or expressionist styles are all to be considered as degenerate art and have to be confiscated. The artists will be forbidden to paint.
His father’s childhood friend Max Nasen is one of them. After Jensen has forbidden him to paint. He lets Siggi get close to Max and reports back if the painter has broken the order. Max treats Siggi like a son, he’d love to teach him how to paint. Siggi likes to learn painting from him too. After learning about the fact that Max is secretly painting, Jensen arrests Max and destroys the paintings. The 11-year-old Siggi is stuck in between, he witnesses how the career of the painter has been destroyed, the colourful emotional paintings being confiscated, he wishes to everything he can to protect these works. Siggi collects , paste together the broken pieces, and put them on the walls as if they are his treasures. As the number of the paintings destroyed by his father, his treasure also became more. It is as if he is atoning for his father’s behaviours, and apologising for not being able to go against his father’s orders and his helplessness for not being able to undo his father’s wrongdoings.
He witnesses with his own eyes how his father destroys a rare friendship with his own hands, and brings the nightmares to Max. Siggi’s brother is an army deserter, he finds his way home with heavy wounds but to find himself being reported by his obligated father and sent to the execution ground. Father becomes the “villain” in the family. After the war, degenerate art rises, Max has been respected as an artist and his works are being acknowledged and praised. Father remains confined to his obligations, continues to search for Max’s works. Accidentally he found the safe haven of Siggi, and put it on fire, burning all the precious memories into ashes. Frightened and panicked, he steals the paintings from Max and gets caught and sent to the detention center.
The film uses a lot of cold grey tones, putting the audience in the suffocating heaviness that has been casted upon Siggi. Siggi steals and hides the paintings in order to protect them out of the fear and respect he has for his father. It becomes his obligation. His father lives in the contradiction of obligation and moral, confronting the friendships and families he has destroyed he isn’t so indifferent. Yet, his obligation becomes the worth of his life, and his conscientiousness defines the meaning of his existence. There aren’t too many words or exaggerated acting, it focuses mainly on the portrait of Siggi. Although young at age, he has witnessed things he can’t understand, he has no right to question but to follow. The warmest scene of the entire film is where Siggi and Max sitting at the beach, the warm sunset light up their faces, with his hands in Max’s, together they capture the brief but wonderful moment with colours. Just like the sunset, such wonderful moment is short, and is meant to be swallowed by the dark night. The stillness of the natural environment and the writhe of the inner world create a strong contrast. The pain soaks deeply inside, casting a shadow on the entire film.
Father does his duty, yet such conscientiousness is twisted and blind. Just as what the director says, the poison of Francism soaks deeply into the humanity. The tragedies of the two families are the result of their sacrifice. Even now, such themes and metaphors are not out of date. With the increase of anti–Semitism movements and racism in the recent years, anti-democratic thought have resurfaced in the german society. The director wishes to ring the alarm with the artistic cinematic languages, to call for the reflection of current situations.
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