Sometimes the human face and voice are all you need to tell a monstrous, compelling story. "Blind Spot -- Hitler's Secretary" is a 90-minute interview with 81-year-old Traudl Junge, who, as a naive 22-year-old, became personal secretary to Adolf Hitler. The interview is conducted by Andre Heller and shot by Othmar Schmiderer. Otherwise, the movie uses no archival footage, cutaways or spoken narration, and it needs none. The simple close-ups of this elderly woman recounting her story are more than enough to rivet us.
Junge won the job not because she was a devoted Nazi -- she never joined the party -- but because she won a stenographic contest and wanted to better herself. Later, she married Hitler's manservant and became a constant member of his household, but her lack of political passion in 1942-45 is what makes her testimony so valuable and convincing. By chance, she was in daily contact with Hitler through the last three years of the war in which he killed millions of people. She was with him up to his suicide in the bunker; he dictated his will to her. Having accompanied him everywhere, she describes for us with easy intimacy what he was like offstage. With amazing recall, she describes Hitler's temperament, character, relations with Nazi underlings like Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann, his private pathologies and how he finally faced defeat and death.
Observing him so closely, she is able to reinforce what Hannah Arendt rightly called the banality of evil. This is a portrait of a monster in private -- a man who, for all his oratorical skill and horrific effect on history, was an essentially banal, flawed, deeply insecure man elevated improbably to great power. Through Junge, we don't see him in inspired flights of thought or seizures of greatness. We see him instead fretting about his image, complaining about his white knees, mulling over health food menus and playing with his dog Goldie, whom he didn't hesitate to poison when he wanted to test Himmler's cyanide pills.
We learn of his private and sexual quirks: the fact that he didn't like to be touched or have dead things around (including flowers). We hear of his vile temper and megalomania. We learn that Hitler referred to himself as a genius, but we see no evidence of it.
The movie is fascinating both because the historical material is so up-close and personal and because we can tell that Junge has no obvious agenda. She's not trying to clear her name, because her name was largely unknown throughout her life. Ashamed of her role, she rarely discussed Hitler, granted no previous interviews and suffered severe depression from her later feelings of guilt. Dying of cancer, she had to be coaxed by Heller and Schmiderer to tell her story on film and by others to publish her memoirs -- at the end of her life, many decades after she could have richly capitalized on them. (Junge died only hours after "Blind Spot" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.)
She's also not trying to soften or exaggerate her portrayal of Hitler. Indeed, after the war, she came to detest him and the Nazi ideology -- and to envy Sophie Scholl, the young girl who, as a member of White Rose, defied the Nazis and was executed. As a non-Nazi with sharp reportorial skills, granted unique access, she's an ideal witness to the private Hitler, and her filmmakers keep her testimony pure.
Interviewer Heller, an Austrian multimedia artist and actor whose relatives died in Nazi camps, culled this 90-minute film from 10 hours of footage (even the outtakes are probably historically valuable), and he and Schmiderer show us almost nothing but the actual interview: Junge in close-up, talking or, occasionally, watching herself on film. This minimalism suits the subject. The movie, in the end, is devastating because of the banality it reveals, and because its terseness and plainness cut a mass killer down to size.
3 stars (out of 4) "Blind Spot -- Hitler's Secretary"
Directed by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer; photography and sound by Schmiderer; edited by Daniel Pohacker; produced by Danny Krausz, Kurt Stocker. With Traudl Junge; interviews conducted by Heller. In German, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: PG (parents cautioned for troubling historical revelations).
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun