The sky was overcast when I began my run on Saturday morning, and midway through my route the clouds opened and drenched me with a cold rain. I’m sure I made a miserable sight as I stopped in a hardware store on the way home. Water dripped from my clothes and hair as I pulled a wadded bill from my running shorts to pay for some window caulking. This day had gotten off to a bad start.

After showering, I ground fresh coffee beans, sipped two cups of the hot, steaming liquid, and decided to scrap the list of chores I had assigned myself for that afternoon. Instead, I would go to a movie. The Chicago Film Festival was under way, and I soon found myself in a theatre watching Following the Führer, a film about the Third Reich by director Erwin Leiser. Twenty-five years after his famous film Mein Kampf, Leiser was again assuming the terrible burden of a German artist and trying to come to terms with his country’s love affair with Hitler.

Leiser himself, a stout man with a moustache, attended the premiere and explained, in accented English, why he had made the film. Mein Kampf had been built around newsclips of massive Hitler rallies and other spectacles of the Reich. But as he watched the newsreels again and again over the years, he realized that they did not portray the everyday lives of ordinary Germans. He noticed that some people simply stared blankly at the proceedings while others around them were screaming in support of everything Hitler said. He began to wonder about the individual people who attended the mass rallies in Munich and Berlin.

Thus, in his second film on Hitler’s Germany, Leiser tried to recreate everyday life. He began again with well-known newsclips: the marches and the rallies, the burning of the Reichstag building, and those scenes from the Krystallnacht of violence against the Jews. But in between all of these familiar scenes he spliced small, dramatized vignettes of everyday life in Germany:

  • A judge sits in a chair in a Nazi bureaucrat’s office, squirming, limply explaining why he skipped a Nazi rally in order to play Mozart with his regular chamber orchestra.
  • A cleaning woman who is scrubbing tile steps with Teutonic vigor stubbornly refuses her neighbor’s advice to stop working for Jewish households.
  • Disgruntled shoppers wait out a bombing raid in an underground shelter, gossiping about reports of military defeats that have never made the German press.
  • An army officer on Christmas leave spoils all his wife’s attempts to create a festive mood. He empties a bottle of Christmas wine virtually at one gulp; it’s the only way, he tells her, to forget about the cattle cars full of Jews he has shipped back from the Eastern front.
  • Two teenage draftees come across a printed flyer dropped from an Allied plane. It shows a picture of corpses stacked like cordwood inside a German concentration camp. They argue: Can such things truly be happening or is the flyer merely propaganda?

The film, through its technnique of alternating newsclips with personal vignettes, explores the thick gray border between what will come clear to later history and what actually happens in everyday life. Now, looking back, the evils of nazism loom large, and the surviving footage of bombing runs, mass rallies, and concentration camps document that evil. But at the time, ordinary German citizens responded to those evils with small, quotidian choices made in a fog of confusion.

As I walked home from the film through a persistent drizzle, I thought about the banality of evil that Leiser had presented. We do not like to think of it as banal; we prefer our evil characters larger than life, like Adolf Hitler, who gives a face to the worst instincts of our species. Because of Hitler, we can take a kind of perverse comfort in the knowledge that someone is worse than we are, and thus, ironically, his horrible extremism may tempt us to discount our own lesser forms of intolerance or idolatry.

In Stalin’s day, while 30 million people were being put to death, life went on as usual for most Soviet citizens. And in South Africa today, millions of white citizens marvel at the world’s furor. They don’t hurt anyone, they insist. They treat their maids kindly, raise good families, and support solid Christian values.

The theater was a mile from my house, and as I walked, my thoughts turned closer to home, to the United States. What will come clear in history to filmmakers who, 40 years from now, will rummage through newsclips of our times?

Will we be seen as a shining beacon of freedom, a light on the hill? Will we go down in history (or what’s left of it) primarily as the civilization that through our weapons made possible something unprecedented: the abolition of all civilization? How will our million abortions a year look a few decades from now?

Or, what if a filmmaker of the future avoids politics entirely and simply assembles a montage of pop culture? What would the future learn from an E.T. doll, a Madonna concert, Garfield the Cat cartoons, Jane Fonda’s videotapes, Stephen King’s novels? Will filmmakers include excerpts from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” or perhaps shots of the frenzied floor of our high-tech stock exchange, as a tribute to our great wealth? What will come clear about our civilization?

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The more I conjectured, the more depressed I felt. And when my thoughts turned inward and I wondered how I, an ordinary citizen, fit into any of those scenes, I felt even more depressed. I felt a sense of helplessness and doom such as I have not felt since the sixties, when everyone felt helpless and doomed.

When I arrived home, I took out a piece of leftover pizza from a cardboard box in the refrigerator and heated it in the microwave. Then I decided to do my list of Saturday chores after all.

I spent the rest of the afternoon pressing flexible caulking around the windows in my house.

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Philip Yancey
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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