Film: The Interpreter of Silence—Unburying The Holocaust

Imagine growing up as a young German in the generation following World War II. Imagine never hearing of the Holocaust or Auschwitz—only that “there was a war and people get killed in a war, may we please change the subject?”

 Birkenau, Poland, May 1944, Jewish women and children waiting in a grove near gas chamber no. 4 prior to their extermination. (Photo by Yad Vashem, public domain)
 Birkenau, Poland, May 1944, Jewish women and children waiting in a grove near gas chamber no. 4 prior to their extermination. (Photo by Yad Vashem, public domain)

No need to imagine. That was how young Annette Hess and thousands of other German youths were raised. “My grandfather was a police officer in occupied Poland, so one of the perpetrators,” she says. Yet it wasn’t until she saw Judgment At Nuremberg, the 1961 Oscar-winning dramatization of the postwar Nazi war crimes trial, that she became aware of the enormity and sweep of the genocide.

“That’s really when I first learned about the Holocaust, and since then, the topic has obsessed me,” says Hess. “As a writer, as an artist, I’ve always tried to engage with it. This idea, to never forget, has been burned into me.”

When the original recordings of the 1963 Auschwitz trials in Germany were made public a decade ago, Hess says, “I listened to them all, all 400 hours’ worth, and I was stunned. I thought I pretty much knew everything about Auschwitz, but this revealed the true horror, the 24-hour hell of the camps.”

She was particularly struck by the translator who not only accurately converted the victims’ Polish into German but also, with her calm and reassuring demeanor, put many at ease enough to speak the unspeakable.

The fruits of that experience were Hess’s novel German House and the limited dramatic series based on it, The Interpreter of Silence, now streaming on Hulu and Disney.

The Interpreter of Silence is autobiographical in attitude only. Centering on a young interpreter, Eva Bruhns, in the 1963 Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, it is not so much about “coming of age” as it is about “coming of truth.” Eva, a fun-loving girl who loves dances and parties and is about to be engaged, has no clue about the war or her parents’ role in it. When she is called upon to translate a deposition given by a Holocaust survivor, she interprets, “They took the prisoners into a cell, turned on the gas and gassed them,” as “They took the guests into the hotel, turned on the lights and illuminated them.”

Her error in translation is partly because the Polish dialect used was unfamiliar but more likely because what the man said is too astounding to be believed. The prosecutor’s assistant, a Jew, advises her that she start learning the relevant vocabulary: “All the words you can come up with for ways of killing people.”

Later, Eva asks her older sister, “Have you ever heard of Auschwitz in Poland?” Her sister, old enough to remember what Auschwitz was, answers, “No,” then excuses herself. It’s late, and she’s had a long day.

Piece by piece, the jigsaw puzzle comes together as witness after witness testifies. The courtroom testimonies are authentic, drawn directly from the recordings. “Everything in the courtroom is factually based, everything in the family is fictional,” says Hess. Even the background sounds during the trial—at one point, children are heard playing at a nearby schoolyard—are true to life.

“You can hear it on the recordings, the school bells, the kids playing [100 feet] away as the translator says: '75 Polish children were sent to the gas,’” Hess adds. “That’s exactly what happened.”

Only the interpreter’s story and the gradual unraveling of her naive, insulated world are fictional. What the witnesses recount is staggering—even to someone who thinks he’s heard the worst of the horrors of the Holocaust. The reaction of the German spectators is almost as shocking to our enlightened ears. Cries of “Lies!” “You’re just in it for the money!” harass the witnesses, often drowning out the other cries of “Murderer!” “Butcher!”

When the trial personnel—prosecution, defense, tribunal and Eva—travel to Poland to inspect Auschwitz, a resident interrupts their dinner to ask if the court will sentence the defendants to death. The chief prosecutor answers that the death penalty is no longer legal in Germany. The resident, who survived Auschwitz, scoffs, “You Germans. You’ll never find them guilty.”

As the Holocaust recedes in our rearview mirror, as the survivors and witnesses die off, as new generations achieve adulthood—inadequately educated or seeing things through the filter of social media where false equivalencies normalize all violence and death—movies such as The Interpreter of Silence become all the more important.

The film’s executive producer, Sabine de Mardt, says, “We wanted to tell this story in a way that modern audiences could identify with it, and we can identify with Eva, with this spirit of the 1960s, which seems very close to us. We see her within the context of a modern life, a life of parties, excitement and personal problems, and who is deeply naive. We, the audience, learn about the Holocaust along with her. This confrontation between ordinary life and history is the core of the story.”

And the story couldn’t be more relevant, with antisemitic hate crimes skyrocketing all over the world, including in Germany. “We are just disgusted by what’s happening now [in Germany] and a bit baffled,” says Hess. “Because Sabine and I are of the German generation where antisemitism was a complete no-go. But the younger generation, the under-20s, don’t know as much about the history of the Holocaust or only know it vaguely. Young people who watch The Interpreter of Silence get a better understanding of this history…. This is a story that’s always worth telling, again and again, you just have to find new ways of telling it for a new generation.”


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antisemitism Auschwitz The Interpreter of Silence Annette Hess