Why the Film Menschen is Not “Just a Movie”

I suppose everyone has a “button” phrase. Something said to them, even in passing, that hits a nerve. Today I am going to confess mine: “It’s just a movie.”

When I sob over a character’s death, or I have nightmares from violent images, or when my chest aches before I’ve even left the theater, it’s personal. When I close my eyes, turn my head, or walk away, with these real emotions, I’ve been told too many times, “It’s just a movie.”

No. It’s not. And personally, any movie worth its salt is not just a movie.

Any story that shares the triumphs, hopes and adventures of characters who are mirrors into what we see, or want to see, or are afraid of, then this tale is not just a movie.

Recently I saw the live action short film Menschen. It deeply affected me, and here I’ll tell you why it is not just a movie.

  • *Note: Although I am sharing images from Menschen and concepts covered in the film, everything in this piece is derived from my own experiences and opinions. I am not in any way professionally associated with the film and do not know or represent the opinions of the filmmakers or producers.

Menschen is a historical fiction, a what-if scenario from the end of World War II. The what-if scenario, however, originated in an all-too-real photograph seen by writer and director Sarah Lotfi. “I came across a picture of a boy with Down syndrome, taken during the WWII time period by an SS photographer. It was taken in an institution. Oh God,” Lotfi asked herself, “What happened to that kid?”

It’s possible when she saw that photo, she knew the history of the Nazi T4 program. Maybe she knew already what the Nazi’s did to disabled children and adults. She definitely knew faces that look a little like that face in the picture; Lotfi has both a sister and a brother with Down syndrome, Oh God…she said, before she began to write the first line.

Hitler’s mass killings began, not with the Jews, who in 1939 were being herded into ghettos, but with the targeted murder of disabled children and adults. Hitler labeled it a mercy. In a letter dated September 1939, Adolf Hitler authorized doctors to provide “mercy death” to those persons who held a “life unworthy of life.” These mercy deaths were carried out in killing centers that introduced gas poisoning which later became the regime’s preferred method of killing millions in the concentration camps.

Menchen includes the story of a boy with Down syndrome who is hidden by his mother. She is trying to protect him from those who find his life unworthy, without contribution, as the doctors and men of science in that time and place carried out systematic euthanasia. It is a horrific story. And it is not just a movie. Not to me.

I too love someone with a face that’s a little bit like the boy in the picture, and I have recently read that same sentiment that killing a person with Down syndrome is a mercy. Where? In the Daily Mail, just last month. The headline reads: “Aborting my baby Oscar was the kindest thing I could do for him: Woman who made the agonizing decision to end her child’s life after discovering he had Down’s syndrome.”

I wonder if that mother saw this movie, Menschen, what would run through her mind? Would she nod in agreement when the SS soldier said, “It would be a mercy,” as he offers to kill the found boy with Down syndrome? What does that mother think when she sees a young actor like Connor Long, A self-advocate who won this role out of several casting calls? Long was named ‘Best Actor’ for his performance in Menschen at the Filmstock Film Festival. That’s not a small deal; that’s a big deal, for anyone. Thankfully, the role he played is one of the long dark past.

Or was it? I am sad to report that sometimes, still today, a scientist will publicly announce, without remorse, that people with Down syndrome, flatly cannot “contribute,” and are “not enhanced.” These specific comments followed the statement that giving birth to a child with Down syndrome is “immoral.” In fact, this belief is so prevalent and persistent that it leads to the large scale eugenics that proceeds, practically undaunted, across the world today.

For example, this information came and went in a mere blink: “Here’s a recent Danish headline: ‘Plans to make Denmark a Down’s syndrome-free perfect society.’ The Danes want to promote aborting fetuses with Down syndrome, so their society will be free of “such people” around 2030. One bioethicist describes it as a ‘fantastic achievement.’” Actually, by today’s standards, that headline is old news (from 2011), and was so little challenged, that their “fantastic” policy continues. Europe and beyond systematically eliminate the births of people with Down syndrome with great success. (Further easy to follow charts and links on the state of eugenics are included here.)

These may be considered unfair correlations, however, because those modern opinions shared above are all based on prenatal diagnosis, and in most western countries, abortion is legal. Truly, the horrors of taking a life already among us, of picking and choosing who can take and who can give, “This is not for us to decide,” as one key player in Menschen asserts. So that was then, and yet…

Only a few weeks ago, not long after the original aforementioned Daily Mail article, there was a follow-up in which a mother not only said she wished her son with Down syndrome was never born but that she, herself, considered killing him on more than one occasion. Was there outrage at this statement? Yes, from some, and me. But also a surprising amount of agreement with her, sympathy for her “losses,” and a mutual acceptance that a person like this should not exist in the modern world. Even public and elected officials have recently shared similar sentiments.

Even worse than that are the cases where parents aren’t just talking about or wishing their child was dead, but actually attempting and succeeding in killing their own children who have a disability. And the public? Some accept that murder was the best available option, considering. I do not know these parents, and cannot know their own state of health or burdens. I am not on their jury; what I fear and protest is the way the media, and by extension, society, glamourizes the idea of a mercy killing. Simply announcing as plausible these child murders leads to the possibility of “copycat” scenarios, as more parents believe death is the best way “out” for their child. How can we hope to keep the people we love who are differently-abled safe, if even families will not love and protect their own?

And for the love of God, don’t read the comments on these stories, you may as well go back to the propaganda posters of the Nazi party:

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EuthanasiePropaganda.jpg

Propaganda for Nazi Germany’s T-4 Euthanasia Program: “This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichsmark during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money, too.” from the Office of Racial Policy’s Neues Volk.

Where does this leave us? All the parents, families, and communities who see and know so many people of different abilities adding value and hope into our world? It leaves us to pay attention to history and to recognize when history repeats itself.

The reason I sometimes can’t sleep at night is because the themes in this short film Menschen are not just a movie.

You can see more about the film on the Menschen website and read the movie review and synopsis here.

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