Charité at War
Directed by Anno Saul
Release Date (Streaming): June, 2019 (Netflix)

Charité at War, a Netflix series directed by Anno Saul, recounts the period before and during the last major battle of WWII, the Battle of Berlin, as lived by the medical personnel at the renowned hospital Charité-University Medicine Berlin. Several characters are historical figures who were prosecuted after the war or whose reputations were damaged by their cooperation with the Nazis. Charité at War reflects the controversial efforts of an earlier German film, Downfall (2010), with Bruno Ganz as Hitler, to humanize the Nazi high command. Like the great French series, Un Village Français, Charité at War works far better than Downfall by looking beyond the grotesquery at the highest level of the Reich to explore the compromises of a more decipherable cast of characters.

Balanced somewhere on the scale between simple opportunism and genuine fascist loyalty is an attractive young couple, Anni (Mala Emde) and Dr. Artur Waldhausen (Artjom Gilz). Anni, a medical student in surgery and psychiatry, is happily pregnant at the start of episode one. Artur, her ambitious, pleasant-looking husband clearly loves her, and practices an unassuming, professional demeanor as he closes in on the job of director of pediatrics. His specialties include helping to develop a tuberculosis vaccine, which is progressing nicely thanks to an allotment of developmentally-delayed children he uses as test subjects at the infamous Wiesengrund facility.

In Charité at War, with this couple especially, we get a re-elaboration of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. Rather than lacking sufficient awareness to recognize the evil of their actions, as in Arendt’s portrayal of Eichmann as a witless cog, the banality of the Waldhausens is rooted in their obvious talents, as if the trappings of success in medicine—the promise of wealth, status, an air of moral decency—preclude the possibility that their actions could be reprehensible. Their disdain for those lacking their quality is mild, without rancor. They are competent professionals who would no doubt prefer to be good, after all, even to strangers, when convenient.

It wasn’t Artur who designated those kids at Wiesengrund as test subjects. His bedside manner with them is flawless—heartbreakingly. He smiles when one of the kids, Heinz, reaches for him, touching his chin. Artur takes his time. He reassures Heinz, who whimpers when he sees the needle, that there will be only “a little pinch.” Artur says “Ha!” after it’s done and the boy laughs. Artur directs the nurse in charge, who looks on approvingly, to record any reactions as she hands him the next child. This simple, delicate scene—the vulnerability of the children, Artur’s gentleness as he imitates a benign procedure—introduces us to an almost imperceptible abyss between what he’s doing and his manner of carrying it out. The horror of Artur is his professionalism, how he makes the unimaginable routine. The banality of evil isn’t expressed only through incompetence or mediocrity.

It’s only after the birth of their daughter Karin, who shows symptoms of hydrocephalus, a brain disease often resulting in cognitive and physiological deficits, that things go wrong for the Waldhausens. After neglecting to report the condition and a pair of surreptitious attempts to treat it, it soon becomes clear that Karin’s disease makes her a prime candidate for transport to Wiesengrund and the kinds of experiments Artur supervises, or worse. Rather than risk his career, Artur makes arrangements to transfer Karin, reasoning that she will be safer from Allied air raids at Wiesengrund. Anni is horrified when she finds out, of course. At first, her defiance is intended only to protect her daughter from her duplicitous husband and the protocols of a monstrous medical infrastructure, but she begins to see an increasingly complex reality as the delusions of safety and superiority are shattered by the regime’s cruelty to her family.

Charité at War comprises many compelling subplots and characters, but Professor Ferdinand Sauerbruch (Ulrich Noethen) has the pivotal role. Widely seen as the world’s greatest surgeon, his charisma echoes Hitler’s, but his acceptance of Nazi ideology is selective. His skill and wit electrify the lecture hall and the operating theater. With his myopic scowling and his loud laughter, his bald head and his toothbrush moustache, he has the stature and courage to defy fascist pieties when it seems feasible and just. He screams bloody murder when confronted with incompetence, and in private, suffers timid remorse when faced with the horrors his son Peter has encountered on the Eastern Front. Sauberbruch’s love and fear for his family and his wild temper at the hospital amplify the tension as the Red Army closes in and the Western Allies ramp up their air raids.

Sauerbruch is a complex character. A member of the Reichsforschungsrat, the Reich Research Council, he had a longstanding record of serving the sick or injured regardless of status or origin. A nationalist angered by Germany’s treatment after WWI, Sauerbruch generally approved of Germany’s expansionism although, in private, he echoes the whisperings among the elite that Hitler is no longer viable as a political or military leader. According to the series, Claus von Stauffenberg (Pierre Kiwitt) was an intimate friend of the family and Sauerbruch allowed the members of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to kill Hitler, to meet in his home. Sauerbruch opposed anti-Semitic policies and euthanasia of the infirm, but he wasn’t above exploiting his contacts in the high command to further his career and those of his students and colleagues.

During a conversation with his dinner guest, the French surgeon Adolphe Jung (Hans Löwe), Sauerbruch learns that Thomas Mann, in a recording broadcast by the BBC, has accused the Nazis of euthanizing thousands of innocent Germans at medical facilities—disabled children, the sick, the elderly, and incapacitated soldiers. This accusation wounds Sauerbruch’s national pride and his sense of responsibility. He leaves the table and goes into a sitting room to put Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor on the gramophone. When he returns, as the first notes transform the mood, Sauerbruch asserts his incredulity that a nation capable of making such music could have gone so astray. He does not “want to believe” that German doctors “still” participate in the Aktion T4, the infamous euthanasia program supported by his colleague, the psychiatrist Max De Crinis (Lukas Miko).

After Jung leaves, Sauerbruch’s second wife, Dr. Margot Sauerbruch, exquisitely played by Luise Wolfram, accuses Sauerbruch of approving experimentation with mustard gas on convicted criminals. He asks why criminals “correctly” (rechtskräftig) sentenced to death should be spared while his own son lay wounded in a field hospital on the Eastern Front and such research might help the war effort. Margot doesn’t back off. Sauerbruch did not protest, she says, when Jews were expelled from Charité in 1933. He can only say, “I tried to help where I could.” But he is silenced. It’s clear his wife’s accusations grieve him. His only response is to return to work, where he orders the transfer of his operating room into a bunker as the threat and the devastation mount.

Charité at War is the second series of a TV show know only as Charité, but besides the format and the hospital context, there is little or no continuity of locale, character, or plot with the first series. The otherwise superb direction and editing of Charité at War are occasionally marred by moments of orchestral kitsch, Masterpiece Theater-style, and audience signaling. Anni smiles and pats her belly as she makes her way down a street in an early scene of the first episode,  for example, in case you missed the bulge representing her pregnancy. The drama at end of the second episode is amplified with a bit of dialog that literally goes “We must intervene before—” followed by the thrumming of violins and a melodramatic close-up of Artur gaping at the cliffhanger of Karin’s diagnosis as Anni cries, “Before what?”

But overall, the acting and production are excellent. Mala Emde (who plays Anni) has become one of my favorite young European actors. She specializes in a kind of restraint which allows her to turn up the heat subtly, boosting her presence, charisma, and influence when necessary to suffuse a scene with emotion or affect the decision-making of the most gruesomely powerful men in the room. Emde seems to natively understand the gestural vernacular of upper-class Germans without wholly belonging to them. You scarcely see her exploiting this vernacular, even when it’s a matter of life and death. I admire how she expresses tact, honesty, calculation, arrogance, and vulnerability all at once with only a sparkle or a redirected gaze.

The English subtitles can go wrong at crucial moments. As the Red Army closes in, a Jewish man shows up at the hospital with his son who is badly burned by an incendiary bomb. Anni, who is assisting, is surprised that Artur treats the boy without betraying them. She whispers accusingly, asking if he is now protecting unregistered Jews. He answers with his own question—“Kennst du mich so schlecht?”—which the subtitles translate as an assertion—“You don’t know me that well!”—a misreading of the moment. “Don’t you know me better than that?” would have worked better, since he is now, finally, asking the question underlying everything between them just as he recognizes that the moral paradigm and his field of opportunity have shifted. As ever more Soviet soldiers overrun the city, Artur refuses at first but accepts a yellow star from the Jew whose son he saved, and you feel almost embarrassed for him as he pins it to his white coat, believing this might protect him during the “Bolshevik” onslaught.

The last minutes of the last episode explore what happens as the balance tilts, where each person must find their way. A few remain fanatical. De Crinis advises Magda Goebbels (Katharina Heyer) in the use of cyanide pills for herself and her children. In the provisional operating room, Sauerbruch’s bunker, Nurse Christel (Frida-Lovisa Hamann), attacks a Soviet soldier with a scalpel. The Kindersoldaten, child soldiers determined to fight to the end, attempt to force their way into the upper floors of the hospital in order to fire on the enemy, regardless of the human cost. For many characters though, whose attitude toward the Reich is more ambiguous, you get the feeling their troubles have just begun.

Peter Brown

Peter is an artist, writer, and translator. He has published two books of poetry in translation, including a French translation (with co-translators Caroline Talpe and Emmanuel Merle) of the poems of David Ferry, Qui est là? (La Rumeur Libre, 2018) and Elsewhere on Earth, (Guernica Editions, 2014), a collection by the French poet Emmanuel Merle. A collection of short stories, A Bright Soothing Noise (UNT Press, 2010), won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize.

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