Carrying the burden

"Life, not worth Living," 1979, watercolor on cardboard, by Gottfried Helnwein.

Documentary tells how artist comes to terms with “burden” of his parents’ generation.

By Laura Tate/Editor

In the film “Ninth November Night,” painter Gottfried Helnwein describes his first encounter with Jewish people during his childhood in Austria after the war, a bleak and dark period, one, he says, with no singing, no laughter. He was nine years old when he saw the two people walking down the street, very close together, walking quickly, looking down the whole time.

Helnwein became intrigued and wanted to know who they were. He asked everyone, all the adults, “Who are they?” But no one wanted to answer. Finally, someone said the word, one that he remembers the person had great difficulty saying-“Jews.”

The 23-minute documentary “Ninth November Night” commemorates the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 assault on Germany’s Jewish businesses and synagogues, ushering in Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish question.” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called this night Kristallnacht—Night of Broken Glass-because of the splinters of glass that covered the streets of Germany the next morning. Fifty years later, Helnwein erected a 100-meter long series of pictures in Cologne, to commemorate this night. They were larger than life pictures of 17 children’s faces, between the ages of six and seven, of various ethnic backgrounds including Jewish and German. At the end hung a banner with the word “Selektion”-or “to be sorted.”

“Ninth November Night,” directed and co-produced by Henning Lohner, is a simple, yet moving portrayal, in Helnwein’s words and through filming of his work and comments by others including Maximilian Schell reading from the book of the same name, of how the artist came to be a painter, what moved him to express the “burden” of his parents’ generation.

A catalyst for Helnwein, he says, is when he watched on national Austrian television an interview with Heinrich Gross, head of psychiatry in Austria, in 1979. A reporter questioned Gross as to whether he actually was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of mentally disabled children, applying the Nazi euthanasia policies during the 1940s. Gross, who Helnwein says was very calm, as if it were normal to be asked such a thing, said yes, he had. As to whether they were killed by injection, Gross said, “No, we just mixed poison in the food, so they weren’t aware of what was going on … so they died humanely.”

Helnwein found that no one registered any protest or sense of outrage at such an admission, so he “painted” a letter, published in a local paper-“I painted what the doctor described,” Helnwein says-a picture of a little girl who has been poisoned and whose face has fallen into her bowl of food. It is entitled, “Life, not worth Living.”

People then protested and Gross resigned from his position, and Helnwein discovered the power of what he could do through art.

A theme that Helnwein stresses is the importance of children, and how they are often betrayed and treated indifferently-children are the “most important” beings, Helnwein says, and adults are too often too busy with the important things in their lives to pay attention to them. “They are our future,” he says.

“Ninth November Night,” is co-produced by Gisela Guttman, a longtime Malibu resident, co-directed and edited by Max Carlson, and photographed by Darren Rydstrom. It will be screened daily at the New Malibu Theatre through Aug. 27 at 3:15 p.m. All proceeds will go to support the Museum of Tolerance.