Today let’s start with a wise remark by a writer. Not me. I writes, you know, but I’m not wise.
In his introduction to the book The Best American Essays 2007, the late David Foster Wallace used the term “Total Noise” to describe the culture of the early years of the 21st century. He meant the cacophony of voices and opinions - much of it generated by low-grade popular culture and fervent political bias - that greets us online, on TV and over the radio, all day and everyday. This, mark you, was pre-Twitter.
One of the elements of the culture of Total Noise is the insertion of the voices of celebrities into areas of debate that have nothing to do with film, fashion or TV. The use of Twitter by celebrities gives the impression of genuine connection with the rich and famous. And yet, of course, sometimes the complete lack of authenticity is revealed.
Ashton Kutcher, who has eight million people following him on Twitter, revealed himself to be utterly remote from reality the other day. He essentially broadcast outrage about the firing of Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who is now believed to have covered up the sexual abuse of children. Kutcher didn’t just put his online foot in his mouth, he illuminated his lack of knowledge about what is actually happening in the world.
In the midst of all the noise - the prattle about baby bumps, fashion faux pas and who is stepping out with who in the Hollywood dating pool - true stories have a heightened power and allure. I put it to you that the rise in the popularity of the documentary is directly connected to all the noise, most of it fake and nonsensical.
In this context I’m pleased to recommend a truly great doc airing tonight. One of those true stories, an epic of love, war and survival, that has all the elements of a big Tinseltown production but is even more powerful because it is fact-based and told with great precision by one of the central players.
Surviving Hitler: A Love Story (CBC NN 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is indeed promoted by CBC as “a remarkable documentary with a plot straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.” And it is true.
The doc, a British one made for the BBC by John Keith Wasson, tells the story of Jutta Cords, now 90 years old, and it is specifically about her love affair with a childhood sweetheart, Helmuth, who became a German solider during the Second World War and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. The doc is all the more powerful for the remarkable amount of archival footage of the couple and of Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
The now elderly but strong Jutta Cords tells her story with a great calm and specificity. She is rueful at times about Helmuth, the sign of someone who was truly in love with her husband. She tells us that she grew up in prewar Germany unaware that she was, officially, Jewish. “Being 5’ 10” and with blonde hair and looking like the prototype of Hitler’s Germanic vision, I did not think there was anything Jewish about me at that time,” she says. Her father revealed that her mother’s parents had been Jewish but converted to Christianity. This meant, she explains as she remembers her adolescent confusion, that she couldn’t marry or go to a university. This is what initially devastated the teenage girl.
She met Helmuth when they were both teenagers. “He was very good-looking, which made me suspicious of him,” she says with an almost wry detachment. They didn’t meet again for years but when they did, the truly astonishing part of their story unfolded.
Cords says, “My story is not a Holocaust story really.” And while this is technically true, the story of her remarkable return to Germany during the war and the details of the attempted plot against Hitler (Helmuth’s recorded voice gives us the specifics) are extraordinary. Jutta too was involved. “I was in a strange mood, almost excited,” she says about turning herself in to the Gestapo.
It has been said about the story told here, “It all sounds too good to be true.” But the fact is, the story is true. It is a story of resistance and determination and a love story. Jutta and Helmuth married, in what is believed to be the first wedding to take place in the ruins of liberated Berlin. “That is extraordinary, isn’t it?” Cords says at the very end. The documentary and the story stand as a sort of rebuke to the culture of total noise and nonsense in which we exist today. Twitter be damned.