The Wermacht cut its swathe through France at a rate that amazed Winston Churchill in no small part because it was on speed.
By Harvey Blume
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler is a book that’s getting attention and deserves more. It’s a well-written, seriously researched study that shows that Germany in the lead up to and during World War II was awash in methamphetamines, churned out by the country’s world-class pharmaceutical industry. The Wermacht cut its swathe through France at a rate that amazed Churchill in no small part because it was on speed. German soldiers on the march seemed tireless because they were: meth has that effect.
I’m thinking of Ohler’s book again because I’ve seen Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan’s arresting film. Historians have asked — as do some characters in the movie — why, when the English expeditionary force, along with remnants of the French army, were cut off at Dunkirk German panzers did not roll in to put an end to them. Ohler’s contribution to the discussion is not to be dismissed. According to him, it wasn’t just Churchill who was nonplussed by the German advance. So was Hitler, who didn’t like to be outrun by his generals and to find them in the limelight. Therefore Hitler halted the German advance long enough to get his charisma back in order. And while he did so the Allied forces got away.
Let me go on with this capsule review of the movie to reaffirm this: it’s a compelling film. I compare it to The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty because like those films by director Kathryn Bigelow it has the kind of overwhelming immediacy that makes it unforgettable. But Bigelow’s immediacy dodges or stuns into submission the kind of question viewers might want to ask about our presence in Iraq, starting with why were we there. Dunkirk suffers no such vacuity or ambiguity: the Nazis were all the reason the English needed to be there.
So far as battles go, the air contests between RAF pilots, flying out to defend soldiers on the beach from Luftwaffe arrack, were the only kind of battle Britain could engage in at that point. Nolan makes the most of them.
Worth noting too, and underlining, are the many small acts of courage and decency by the Brits, especially by members of the civilian armada who risked their lives sailing to Dunkirk in small craft to bring the troops back home. As for the soldiers themselves, they were none too proud of themselves for having been routed. One, welcomed back in England by an old man says, “All we did was survive” to which the old fellow, offering blankets and tea, responds, “That’s enough.” Then we hear Churchill’s magnificent speech applauding these survivors and announcing to Germany that his country will never surrender.
There are problems with the film, first of all the music, a sort of constant low gauge horror film drone, announcing, repetitiously, that the monster is not far away. But maybe that’s justified for there was indeed a monster, and it was not far away.
And then there’s the English accent. Wish something could be done about that (even though there’s not much actual dialog to parse). In addition, Nolan’s lack of interest in linear narrative — he jumps from one time frame to another — compounds problems of connecting with the basic storyline.
That said, a terrific film. I recommend both Blitzed and Dunkirk.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.