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Actress Confronts German Book Burnings with Daring Readings

Sonia Phalnikar
May 13, 2003

Popular German actress Iris Berben kept audiences in Berlin riveted over the weekend by alternately reading out excerpts from the diary of Holocaust victim Anne Frank and Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels.

German actress Iris Berben: committed in the fight against racism and anti-SemitismImage: AP

The voice sounds cold and chilling. "The time is ripe to find a final solution to the Jewish question," it says, as a demonstration of young neo-Nazis waving flags appears on a screen. The voice belongs to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s infamous minister for propaganda and public enlightenment, while the images stem from more recent days.

The screen goes blank and Iris Berben, seated at a small desk in front of the screen, begins reading in a warm voice the first sentences written by Anne Frank on June 20, 1942 in the diary that has become one of the most important books documenting the tragedy of the Holocaust.

One of several events to mark the 70th anniversary of the notorious "book-burnings" by the Nazis on May 10, the reading by the German actress is unusual because it juxtaposes a Holocaust victim’s perspective with the diaries of one of the perpetrators.

Conceived and directed by award-winning director Michael Verhoeven, the readings are set the music of Kurt Weill and Friedrich Hollaender, banned by the Nazis for being "un-German" and "degenerate." Berben, accompanied by pianist Peter Ludwig, has been touring Germany with the reading project since early 2002 and has performed in concert halls, schools and youth centers.

Contrasting the victim and perpetrator perspective

The crowd filling the large atrium of the Dresdner Bank at the Pariser Platz in central Berlin on this May evening hang on Berben’s words as she reads young Anne Frank’s moving descriptions of her initial carefree life, increasingly clouded by fear and uncertainty.

Anne Frank
Undated photo of Anne FrankImage: AP

The screen shows black and white pictures of Anne’s family, her dog-eared diary and later the hideout in the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, where the Franks hid from the Nazis for two years before being discovered in 1944 and deported to a concentration camp.

Abruptly, Berben little girl’s voice drops, the light turns harsher and the actress launches into a grandiloquent passage penned by an increasingly fearful and incensed Goebbels in summer 1942. The demagogic propaganda minister’s insecurity in the face of German military losses, in particular the crushing defeat at Stalingrad, his pompous justifications, his self-pitying, his calls for German citizens to glorify Hitler and the Nazi ideal emanate through his words.

Joseph Goebbels
Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda ministerImage: AP

Scenes of Goebbel’s notorious speech in Berlin’s Sportpalast, the frenzied crowds as he screams, "do you want total war?" are played out on the screen. The ranting is accompanied by Peter Ludwig on piano. The music is conspicuously absent when Berben turns to Anne Frank’s diary, but picks up again when Goebbel’s ominous words echo through the lobby.

"One can sensitize people to a certain issue"

"There are two different kinds of fears that we’re dealing with here," Iris Berben told DW-WORLD as she explained the project. "Anne Frank’s fear is easily understood -- it’s the fear of death. With Goebbels, it’s the cynical fear that the German people are too weak to follow his brilliant idea. For me it’s fascinating to see two witnesses of the same period being set together," the 52-year-old said.

A popular television and film actress, Berben has picked up several illustrious German film awards, including the "Bambi" and the "Golden Camera." However, she is equally well known for her tireless campaign against racism and anti-Semitism, encouraging Germans to think about and confront their past.

"I’ve realized that one can sensitize people to a certain issue. It’s not about judging who’s to blame. It’s more about having a responsibility to know -- only when we’re sensitive and we know our history, can we see where injustices happen today," she said.

"Both diaries deal with fear"

Director and scriptwriter Michael Verhoeven elaborates on the idea of juxtaposing Anne Frank’s and Joseph Goebbel’s perspective of the turbulent 1940s. "Goebbel’s insecurity begins around the same time that Anne Frank begins writing her diary. That makes a parallel reading of the books compelling. I’m interested in emphasizing the feeling of being cornered. The diaries of Anne Frank and Joseph Goebbels both deal with fear and the highly different ways in which they are tackled," the director writes in the program guide.

Michael Verhoeven
Director Michael VerhoevenImage: AP

Acclaimed for films such as the "White Rose," "My Mother’s Courage" and the Oscar-nominated "Nasty Girl," most of Verhoeven’s films too deal with the dark German past and the way that Germans confront it today.

"We need to get rid of our fear of strangers"

Iris Berben, who was recently awarded the prestigious Leo Baeck prize for her commitment to improving German-Jewish ties and encouraging an atmosphere of tolerance and open-mindedness, says that German society displays a certain nonchalance when it comes to the topic.

"I don’t like to hear that anti-Semitism exists in other countries too. We shouldn’t forget that we have our own history, a very unique one, and we should see the addition of every foreign person to this country as an enrichment. We need to find ways to get rid of our fear of strangers. That’s the most important thing."