THE BREATH OF DEATH
An investigation into the psychology of violence, terror, and genocide.
Feature Film / GER-USA-POL / 90:00 Min.
As Germany hammers Poland in 1939, a young Polish man witnesses an incident that will impact him for the rest of his life. Drunken German soldiers heave an old, Jewish man onto a pickle barrel in occupied Warsaw. They proceed to humiliate him in front of a crowd. Amidst cheers of approval, the old man is cursed at, spat upon, and punched by the soldiers. One of the soldiers pulls out a knife and hacks his beard off, holding it up like a freshly cut scalp. The young Polish man swears he will never allow anyone to humiliate him like that. He has no idea his resolution will soon be put to the test. The young man is Marek Edelmann. History recognizes him as a commander of resistance fighters from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Sixty-five years later, I met Marek Edelmann in the Polish city of Lodz, where he moved after World War II. Despite the fame and attention he received after the war, he led a humble life. I asked him,”What do you think about Germany and the Germans today,”. His answer was surprisingly unconventional: “The German people are a great people. They were courageous and put up a good fight. At the time I shot a few of them. We’re even now. Germany has since normalized, and my relationship with the German people is generally good.”
No wonder the post-war government of Poland declared him “crazy” and avoided attempts to exploit any political capital he might have. Marek Edelmann “smelled the breath of death,” but he was not an opportunist who could be manipulated. When normalcy returned to Warsaw, Marek Edelmann studied medicine and became a cardiologist. Only occasionally did he speak about the cruel plight of the ghetto. Seldom did he give interviews, and he avoided the hype that surrounded him when a head of state or pope would honor him. Prior to our meeting in Lodz, I was aware of Marek Edelmann as the author of “The Ghetto Fights”, a comprehensive report about the events in and around the Warsaw Ghetto. It recounts the unimaginable cruelties the Germans inflicted on the Jewish people. How could it have happened? Is there an explanation for it? More than that, can we or must we understand it?
Germany’s brand of National Socialism was often compared to a form of hypnosis. Adolf Hitler was characterized as a demonic figure who hypnotized the German people, making them completely submissive. Some would suggest, “it was all Hitler’s fault.” But in the end, there are no demons. Hitler was a human being. This argument does not explain the rise of National Socialism, instead, it romanticizes and demonizes Hitler. As such, it is an expression of National Socialist propaganda which characterizes Hitler as a man with supernatural powers. The Holocaust continues to be the most extensively researched and least understood phenomenon in modern history.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is the story of SS brigadier general Jürgen Josef Stroop’s brutal suppression of the Warsaw ghetto’s citizens. Stroop was a typical Nazi, one of many without whom National Socialism could never have functioned. The National Socialist machinery functioned solely because many cogs were well oiled and moving in sync. Who, if not Stroop and others like him, could have executed the planned genocide? Hitler could not have done it on his own. People like Stroop turned the theoretical into the practical. They weren’t forced into carrying out atrocities. For them, these atrocities were justified and carried out with enthusiasm. How does a person murder thousands of people for the so-called common good? How do terror and genocide function? Do they share a common language? If so, how do they communicate?
The documentary film THE BREATH OF DEATH is unique in its examination of the psychology of terror because it uses the example of a specific perpetrator: Jürgen Josef Stroop — his history, his behavior, and his rationalizations. Shocking statements and disturbing images confront viewers with incomprehensible barbarism, but this ingrained violence can be explained. Centuries of violence, obedience, and cowering before authority characterized a psychically deformed German society. This society brought spawned the type of human being who was prepared, without hesitation, to violently confront everything that did not fit into its worldview of a “master race”. Germany perceived itself as having suffered disadvantage at the hands of it’s enemies. It’s hatred sought out those who could be blamed for their personal and collective misery. That hatred struck gold as the supposed messiah arrived and put into words what many were already thinking. In this way, terror and genocide do have a language – and they are telling us something. We must listen. Otherwise we are in danger of repeating the past. It could happen at any moment.
Because evil can be not only banal, but also fascinating, telling any story about terror and genocide is inherently a tightrope act. The perpetrator should speak, but not without counterpoint. While the personal statements of the protagonist Stroop reveal his true colors, we see in pictures how the object of his testimony has been twisted in meaning or reduced to absurdity. At the same time Hitler preached about world peace, the German war machine ran at full capacity. When Marek Edelmann speaks, the images correspond accurately to the stories – as opposed to Stroop, whose worldview was concocted by submission, ignorance, and a craving for recognition and vengeance. When Stroop speaks of “outlaws” and “subhumans,” we see that he is speaking of human beings who represent a threat to his insane universe.
The film is about the peculiar psychology possessed by perpetrators of violence. New and exclusive archive material elucidates that psychology. When Stroop and those like him speak, terror and violence are speaking. They speak through the manifestation of inequality in human living conditions, and the misery of perceiving oneself as disadvantaged. It is the kind of misery that provides fertile soil for terror and genocide to thrive.