In September of this year, the first victims of the Nazis were the last to be acknowledged with their own memorial in Berlin almost seventy years after their deaths. It is estimated 200,000 individuals with mental illness and cognitive disabilities were killed under Hitler’s Operation T4 Project, which assessed those individuals as worthless in contributing to the agenda of the Third Reich.
Like the long over-due memorial in Berlin, a film has finally been made about this important and neglected subject. Sarah R. Lotfi, director and writer of the award winning short film Menschen (German for ‘human beings’), explores the Operation T4 Project through the lens of a small, personal story set in the final days of World War II.
I discovered Menschen (U.S., 28 minutes, 2013) through the film’s partner The Arc of the United States, a national entity of nearly 700 chapters advocating for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I was also lucky enough to speak to Sarah R. Lotfi the film’s director.
Menschen centers on Himmelbauer (played by actor Dan Cheatham) an Austrian Captain who leads his soldiers and Radek, a boy with Down syndrome (played by actor Connor Long), behind Russian lines to surrender to American Forces.
Earlier Himmelbauer and his men take over the home where Radek lives with his mother. During a firefight, Radek’s mother dies and Himmelbauer – protective of the boy – takes him under his wing. He tells his men they need Radek as a show of good faith to the Americans. That rings false given his obvious affinity for the boy. The truth behind why he has Radek join them is later revealed to be rooted in his own haunted past. Himmelbauer’s story is not just that of an officer in war but of a man given the opportunity of redemption.
Lotfi has made an ambitious film that is exceedingly well-produced. The story is told in both English and German with subtitles. The editing is smart and moves the story along in an engaging manner. Cheatham and Long are both strong actors who with very little dialogue create a believable bond.
It is a unique film. Lotfi has rejected the typical WWII film narrative by challenging prejudice behind stereotypes like “enemy”, “disabled”, or even “hero”. Menschen is a WW II story never seen before — a narrative drama about the personal ramifications of the T4 Project and one told through the point of view of an Austrian officer. Its differences are so compelling I wished it was a feature length production. I wanted to see the events that shaped Himmelbauer‘s character and I wanted to know more about Radek.
In talking with Lotfi, I learned two of her siblings have Down syndrome one of who also has Autism. She wanted to make a film where she was able to relate her experience growing up with her brother and sister through the character closest to herself: Himmelbauer.
She shared with me, “I wanted to tell a story about humanity by reflecting things I know personally. Radek does not represent all children with Down syndrome. In my research I found a photo of a boy with Down syndrome taken by an S.S. officer. He was also part of my inspiration.”
I asked how she found Connor Long, the young actor with Down syndrome who portrays Radek. “He came in cold to a casting call we had in Colorado. He actually forgot some of his lines but his emotion was so real the woman reading with him was moved and started crying. Everyone had an emotional response to him.”
Long does a wonderful job in the film. He has garnered positive reviews as well as winning the best actor award at the Filmstock Film Festival for his performance. Lotfi shared that Long wants to pursue a career in acting. It is a goal that seems achievable given his talent. Let’s just hope there are directors who can imagine an actor with Down syndrome playing diverse characters.
As a mother with a child who has Down syndrome, I was struck by how the prejudicial thoughts expressed by some of the German officers toward Radek resonant today. Upon discovering Radek, one of the soldiers suggests they kill him: “That thing…an Untermensch…unworthy of life!” “It would be a kindness to put it out of its misery.”
This belief shows that while the gravest injustice was committed by the Nazis through their T4 Project, perceptions of people with disabilities were not that far behind. These sentiments of people with Down syndorme are almost identical to those being said now, whether by medical professionals, prominent scientists or first person accounts by parents. Today those beliefs are shrouded under the protection of reproductive rights rather than placed in the arena of eugenics that even the Nazi’s had the audacity to acknowledge*.
When I asked Lotfi about those implications she said her “intention was not to make a political film but a personal film that explored the journey of one character’s experience given a chance to do things differently.” I think her point of view is very likely why her film is not didactic but instead an authentic story.
I wanted to see the film in part because of the limited portrayals of people with Down syndrome in film. Unfortunately these characters are often relegated to the inspiring character role. Lotfi’s Radek feels like a real person.
I am grateful to Lotfi for allowing us even a small view into this ignored part of history. This past has been so minimized the officers and doctors who committed atrocities against children and adults with disabilities were never charged with war crimes.
After watching Menschen I was reminded of the quotation by George Santayana:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
My hope is now that the victims of the T4 Project have finally been memorialized and because of filmmakers like Lotfi who believe their story is worth telling we will finally come to understand that not all history is remembered equally.
*I am pro-choice which means I think women have the right of choice. What I am not in favor of is vilifying a group of people so we can get rid of them.
For more information on the film:
Website (includes a trailer of the film)
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