Hava Beller’s award-winning film The Restless Conscience documents the stories of Germans resisters, most of whom died for daring to fight the oppression and criminality of the Nazi regime.
Hava was born in Germany, raised on a kibbutz in Israel, and came to New York City to study music and dance at the Julliard School of Music and later film at the New School. In 1981, she learned of the German resisters through her friendship with Dorothea von Haeften, whose father was tried and hanged for his role in the July 20, 1944 attempt to overthrow Hitler. “It hit me like lightening. I dropped everything, went to Germany, and began work on the film,” Hava says.
Hava faced many preconceptions and biases that impeded the making of the film. “I often heard: ‘we don’t want to associate our image with that subject; we don’t want to know about it; we are afraid it will whitewash the Germans; we are afraid it will create a new myth about Germany.’ And finally, ‘It is too objective.’ It revealed an array of biases, prejudices, pain, and the injustice that misinformation can perpetrate.”
The Restless Conscience tells the story of those individuals who wrestled with the conflict between their personal and national identities. They were caught between loyalty to country and moral outrage about the crimes and atrocities committed by the Nazis. Moral and ethical choice in the face of adversity is the principal theme of the film. “Throughout the project,” Hava says, “I would constantly ask myself: What would I have done? Would I have had the courage to resist? Would I have risked my own life—and even more so—the life of my son? I still don’t know the answers.”
Hava found it difficult and painful to penetrate the attitude of the many people unwilling to learn about these unknown German resisters. “When God spread prejudice, it was not in one place only, but all over the world,” Hava reflects. “But prejudice can affect the fate of countless lives. I was determined to document those who risked their lives to fight the evil of the Nazis.”
Tales of ordinary citizens, who chose to hide and help the persecuted despite the extraordinary danger to themselves and their families, convinced Hava that it was unacceptable to remain ignorant about the courage of those involved. “It was as if I had a fire burning inside,” Hava says. “I was going to fight for that subject and for them until they had a voice.”
During her ten years of solitude while making the film, Hava was ostracized by some friends, but she drew strength from the handful of sympathetic supporters in the United States and Germany who understood her project, including the few resisters who survived. Hava’s son, Thomas Beller, wrote in the New Yorker that his mother’s “commitment to The Restless Conscience had overtones of Don Quixote.”
Hava’s relentless pursuit of the truth has assured that the German resistance will not be forgotten. Since its release in February, 1992, The Restless Conscience has been translated into 13 languages and shown in over 30 countries. In 1992, Hava’s film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. The following year, President Richard von Weizsacker presented Hava with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the country’s highest civilian award.
“In every sentence, in every interview, we sense how carefully and intensively the director is trying to allow justice to be done to this miserable chapter of German history,” a review from the Stuttgarter Zeitung said. “She does not defend and she does not accuse. She allows the truth to speak through shattering pictures and moving interviews, conducted with the few survivors and the magnificent wives of the victims.”
Hava continues to pursue her intense interest in resistance under oppressive regimes. After the release of The Restless Conscience, she began work on a new film about dissent and opposition to the communist regime in East Germany. “It will explore the motivating principles of those who chose responsibility to their personal code of ethics over that of a suppressive national political system and who were willing to bear the consequences,” she says. She has interviewed East German writers, artists, clergymen, Stasi officers, ex-informers, imprisoned and tortured dissidents, border guards, and the parents of sons killed at the Wall.
At a Boston screening of The Restless Conscience, a Jewish woman who had been incarcerated with her parents in a concentration camp, told Hava: “I wish my family could have lived to see this film.” Countless young Germans have watched, as Hava explains, “with tears in their eyes because they had never before experienced so intimately the lives and eventual fate of those who resisted. Not from their parents, not from their schools.”
“I believe we should know about these men and women—they are among the disappeared of their time,” Hava Beller declares. “They represent the victory of hope over the perpetuation of hate, and they remind us that we are all responsible for one another, then as well as now.”