Human Failure, a documentary by Michael Verhoeven—director of the early-1990s art-house hit The Nasty Girl—brings to light a fact that needs to be grasped: Nazi Germany was a state and not a clan or tribe or some other lower and more chaotic social order. The documentary, which screens at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival, is about how German citizens robbed German Jews; a robbery, furthermore, that was facilitated by the state. It was an orderly robbery, with records, receipts, and tax accounting. The state took property not only from living Jews but also from those whom it murdered. At one moment in the documentary, an elderly Jewish-American couple looks at the records of the property that the state stole from their Jewish-German grandparents. There is a "gray suit, valise, black winter suit." The list brings to mind Hannah Arendt's still-controversial concept of the "banality of evil." This was a robbery made banal by the methodic mode of the state's bureaucratic machine.
What is even more frightening about this form of banality is that it shows that the state can function as a state while committing barbaric acts. The Nazi state did not collapse into chaos—it operated within a strictly legal and highly organized framework. In Human Failure, we see "the horror": the lack of a distinction between barbarism and civilization. Barbarism can exist (indeed thrive) in a state of order. "There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism," wrote Walter Benjamin, a victim of Nazi state power/madness (a madness with a method). The same is true of the state—it can be at once totally barbaric and totally civilized. Cinerama, Thurs March 18 at 7 pm.