At the Cinema Village in Greenwich Village, one of New York’s last remaining arthouse movie theaters, I went to a screening over the holidays of A German Life. It was a brutal experience.
The New York Times described it as “likely to be the last new movie of its kind: a documentary that presents contemporary testimony from someone who witnessed the inner workings of the Nazi high command.”
The film centers on an interview with Brunhilde Pomsel, who served as Joseph Goebbels’ secretary and who was 103 when she was recorded, with video frequently punctuated by raw archival footage from WWII and post-war material.
It was natural to watch the film and to feel utter and complete revulsion at Ms. Pomsel’s testimony, as she struggles with her own guilt and complicity, being present and working at the epicenter of Nazi atrocities. She asks, “Is it bad, is it egoistic when people who have been placed in certain positions try to do something that is beneficial for them, even when they know that by doing so they end up harming someone else?”
She describes her decision to join the Nazi party as, “Why shouldn’t I?” She talks about the workplace and professional benefits she would receive as a party member, as we might describe signing up for a music streaming service. In the end, she almost reluctantly admits that she was “one of the cowards.”
But oddly enough, as discussed in a New York Times article, “Ms. Pomsel’s personal guilt was not the directors’ main focus.” Rather, the movie makers wanted it to be a “reminder of the human capacity for complacency and denial.”
Taking it a step further, one of the directors, Olaf Müller, said: “One of the main aims of the film is to have the audience question: How would I have reacted? What would I have done in her situation for a new step in my career?”
I’m glad I read the NYT interview with the directors before I watched the film. Why? Because Olaf’s challenge made me uncomfortable. It caused me to think deeper than I otherwise would have, to imagine myself at that place and time, confronted with similar circumstances.
Like everyone, I’d like to think I know exactly how I would have reacted. We can all cast ourselves in the role of always doing what’s right, especially with the benefit of hindsight.
But in our world today, where globally disbursed personnel face constant ethical dilemmas in their lives and work, and where subtle and obvious forces intertwine with emotional biases and decision making, these crucibles are powerful tools for business and compliance leaders to look deeper into the question, “What would I do?”
And Ms. Pomsel also provides a chilling reminder for commercial personnel to think beyond their own ecosystem, where corruption might look like a business win-win, without the calculus of “who am I hurting,” even if unintended.
Compliance leaders have a unique opportunity to embrace Olaf’s challenge. Here is where cross-functional teams can collectively struggle with ethical dilemmas in order to help safeguard the front-lines of operations. We don’t need to wait for a blog post, podcast or enforcement action to ask ourselves, “What would I have done?”
So many of these conflicts and challenges are inevitable and almost predictable, so why not surface them now? Why wait for an imminent crisis to face our future choices? As a clergyman once said to me, “The best time to build a house is when there’s not a storm.”
As a postscript, Ms. Pomsel died about a year ago at 106. She served five years of prison in the then Soviet Union, after her capture in the bunker where Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide.
A trailer for A German Life is here.
I wish everyone all the best for a Healthy and Happy 2018, with lots of difficult, challenging and uncomfortable conversations.
Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen-and-a-half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He was named to Compliance Week’s list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015.
His popular real-life compliance training video, Behind the Bribe, produced in cooperation with Mastercard, was released in June.
To request a demo of the full eleven-minute video or a licensing fee schedule, please click here.