The Wannsee Conference (2022). Directed by Mattie Geschonnek. Screenplay: Magnus Vattrodt and Paul Mommertz. Camera and editing: Dirk Grau
To mark the 80th anniversary of the notorious Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, at which leading Nazis and state ministers planned the annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population, the new film “The Wannsee Conference” by Matti Geschonnek has been on show since January 19 ZDF-Media library available. The film will be broadcast on ZDF on Monday, January 24th at 8:15 p.m.
Geschonnek’s film, shot at the original location, concentrates almost exclusively on the 90-minute session at the Villa am Wannsee near Berlin. Leading figures of the Nazi regime gathered here on a Saturday morning at the invitation of Reinhard Heydrich (Philipp Hochmair), the head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) of the SS, who was assigned the leadership role in the “Final Solution”, for a “meeting followed by breakfast”. On the agenda: “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question”.
Besides Heydrich, the participants were:
- Adolf Eichmann (Johannes Allmayer), SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer and minute-taker of the meeting
- Heinrich Müller (Jakob Diehl), SS group leader and chief of the Gestapo of the RSHA
- Martin Luther (Simon Schwarz), Undersecretary of State in the Foreign Office
- Josef Bühler (Sascha Nathan), State Secretary in the Office of the Governor General of occupied Poland, Hans Frank
- Roland Freisler (Arnd Klawitter), State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of Justice and later President of the People’s Court (about a year later he should sentence the Scholl siblings to death in this position)
- Gerhard Klopfer (Fabian Busch), Ministerial Director in the NSDAP Party Chancellery
- Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger (Thomas Loibl), Ministerial Director in the Reich Chancellery
- Rudolf Lange (Frederic Linkeman), SS-Sturmbannführer and commander of the Security Police and SD in Latvia
- Otto-Hofmann (Markus Schleinzer), Chief of the Race and Settlement Main Office of the SS
- Georg Leibbrandt (Rafael Stachowiak) and Alfred Meyer (Peter Jordan), both from the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories
- Erich Neumann (Matthias Bundschuh), State Secretary in the Office of the Commissioner for the Four-Year Plan
- Karl Eberhard Schöngarth (Maximilian Brückner), Commander of the Security Police and SD in the General Government of Poland
- Wilhelm Stuckart (Godehard Giese), co-author of the Nuremberg Race Laws and then State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of the Interior
At the beginning of the film we see the final minutes of the preparations for the meeting: the documents, including a list of 11 million Jews in Europe compiled by Eichmann, are pushed together on the table for each participant; Salmon bites, cognac and coffee are provided.
Heydrich, who withdrew to final preliminary talks first with Martin Luther, the Undersecretary of State at the Foreign Office, and then with SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Lange and Schöngarth and Gestapo chief Müller, said to Eichmann: “Entertain the gentlemen with stories from the East.”
Alongside Eichmann and Müller, Luther from the Foreign Office is the one most closely privy to the RSHA’s plans and preparations for the extermination of the Jews; Even before the meeting, he assured Heydrich “complete access” to Jews “of all nationalities” in Europe. “The time for consideration is over.”
In Heydrich’s office overlooking the lake, Schöngarth and Lange report on the Eastern Front, where the Nazis have shot hundreds of thousands of Jews in mass graves since the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Lange declared that “Estonia was free of Jews” and that Latvia and Lithuania were “also free of Jews, except for Jews who worked there”.
By the time of the Wannsee Conference, the Nazis, with the help of local fascist collaborators, had already murdered 537,000 Soviet Jews. Heydrich warns his SS people that the state secretaries are made of different stuff than the SS. But: “The gentlemen should know what they are involved in, that closes the ranks.” It’s just a “question of dosage”.
The session opened with Heydrich pointing out that Estonia was “Jew-free”. The participants all bang on the table in applause.
The meeting itself primarily revolved around two questions: first, Heydrich wanted to get all the state authorities involved to agree on the industrialized mass murder and to get them to recognize the main role of his authority – the Reich Security Main Office – in it. The film bitingly shows a spooky bickering between state secretaries who see their ministries as having limited powers. Bühler’s main concern is that the 2 million Polish Jews in the General Government will be the first to be deported and murdered.
Nowhere is it clearly stated what exactly happens to the Jews. This is also historically correct. The record of the Wannsee Conference itself only mentions an “evacuation” to the east. The other, perhaps more disturbing, term that came up a number of times at the conference is “work away.”
Second, by far the longest part of the session dealt with the so-called “Mischlingsfrage”, ie German Jews who had been classified as “half Jews” or “quarter Jews” under the Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935. Stuckart, himself one of the authors of these laws, insists that they be exempted from deportation, proposing instead their mass forced sterilization.
Like several other state secretaries, Stuckart was primarily concerned that the mass deportation of Jews from the German Reich would lead to “unrest”, “irritation and inquiries” among the population. At one point, Stuckart says that in the event of a mass deportation of around 70,000 people, “chaos will ensue, and out of chaos there will be resistance.”
No one raises fundamental objections to mass murder. Erich Neumann, state secretary in Göring’s office for the four-year plan, repeatedly emphasizes that necessary Jewish specialists in Germany must be exempted from deportation in order not to endanger the economy. Nor should one simply squander Jewish workers in the East. Heydrich reassured him: the criterion of Jews “able to work” and “not able to work” would now play a greater role. “Jews able to work” would first be used for the war economy before they too would be “added to the final solution”.
Elsewhere, secretaries of state express concern that mass transports in the middle of a war would hamper the war effort. Heydrich replies: “The war is not an obstacle, but an opportunity,” things could now be done and achieved that were impossible under peacetime conditions.
State Secretary Kritzinger, who is somewhat disturbed by the reports from the East, is primarily concerned about the impact of brutal shootings on “our German soldiers”. At the end of the session, based on the shooting of over 33,000 Jews in the Babi Jar gorge near Kiev, which would have taken place “under ideal conditions” within three days, he calculated that 450 days of uninterrupted mass shootings would be necessary to kill all 11 million “work away” Jews.
Heydrich shows understanding. Even Heinrich Himmler was affected when he witnessed such mass shootings. He immediately asked that “more humane” methods of mass murder – “more humane” for the murderers – be found. Since then, new methods have been developed based on the “findings” from the T4 euthanasia campaign, in which 70,000 physically disabled and mentally ill people were gassed.
In Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss made “promising experiments” with Zyklon B on Russian prisoners of war. One can assume that in the near future thousands of people a day could be “worked away” in this way in Auschwitz alone. At the end, reassured by these assurances, Kritzinger leaves the villa and rushes to the next meeting, where the “restructuring of the post office” is on the agenda.
With the exception of Adolf Eichmann, who was sentenced to death in Israel in 1961 and executed in 1962 after he had spent a long time in exile in Argentina maintaining Nazi networks undisturbed, as well as Bühler and Schöngarth, hardly any of the participants in the Wannsee Conference were held accountable. Several of them, including Georg Leibbrandt, who became an adviser to the Adenauer government, were able to continue their careers undisturbed in post-war Germany. (See also: 80 years since the Wannsee Conference)
The screenwriters Magnus Vattrodt and Paul Mommertz wrote the screenplay based on the only surviving minutes of the conference – all other copies were destroyed because the meeting officially never took place – as well as extensive historical research.
The film dispenses with music entirely and relies on the work of the camera and the chamber drama of the excellent actors. Geschonnek, whose father, the famous East German actor Erwin Geschonnek, himself survived several concentration camps, is said to have told his actors not to play Nazis. He told Deutschlandfunk that the meeting should convey the “character of a board meeting”.
It is precisely this approach and this atmosphere that make this film so oppressive and topical: Geschonnek not only shows the “banality” of the crimes – at least from the point of view of the Nazis themselves – but he also conveys, whether consciously or not, an impression of the milieu and the Climate in which the fate of millions – be it the mass deaths caused by the Corona policy or a war in Ukraine, for example “as an opportunity” – is discussed today on the executive floors of governments, large corporations and banks.
The film shows, in a sober and therefore all the more frightening way, what it looks like and what it leads to when the ruling class and the forces of political reaction dominate political events. For that reason alone, it deserves a wide audience.