February 01, 2013

"Summer of My German Soldier" is a spiritual experience

Esther Rolle and Kristy McNichol

I've watched a wonderful movie that cost a full-grown tree. It took a case of Kleenex after the movie was over, like the next day and the day after that. Just thinking about some of the dialog opens water faucets attached to my eyeballs. Big, sobbing tears indicating something transcendent has taken place, but not always. I cry watching Lifetime movies bordering on emotional exploitation---or so my daughter says while wiping her eyes, too.

It doesn't bother me. Crying. Even during commercials ruthlessly focused on consumer's soft bits. In 1970, an episode of Star Trek made me cry, rendering myself a perpetual target for group shame. (Note: never watch  Captain Kirk with college roommates).

Once in a g-r-e-a-t while, a film touches my heart in a persistent way.  My obligation to the directors, writers, and actors creating film for the soul, is to reflect on what they've presented. If thoughts give birth to insights and revelations, then the film is a spiritual experience. Of course, not everyone will agree that Summer Of My German Soldier is a spiritual movie--especially if their definition of spirituality is based on a solipsistic denial of reality reinforced with feel-good idealism; i.e.: seductive narcissism. A transformative film, I think, makes us uncomfortable enough to squirm in our seats, recognizing our villainous selves, our capacity to perpetrate evil despite our desire not to, despite our desire to believe in absolutes: we are good and they are bad and anything we do to the "dehumanized other" is justifiable. As we grapple with each of the roles presented in Summer of My German Soldier, we can hope (by the end) that we'd be valiant and brave, righteous in the eyes of the Almighty.

This made-for-television film was released in 1978. The film quality isn't the best and it's a little slow for our 21st century five-second attention spans, but please watch the whole thing. The last half hour will reach into the hearts of all who have suffered at their parents hands and been saved by the compassionate arms of another who sees them and loves them enough to speak the truth. I tried to write this article without spoiling the movie and haven't included a scene-by-scene synopsis. But still, if you're the type of person who gets mad and sends hate mail when somebuddy spoils the plot, do us both a favor and watch the  movie first...like now. You can scroll to the bottom of this post where I've embedded a full-version or you can watch it on The WoN Cinema.

Fort Robinson, Nebraska
The Summer of My German Soldier is a coming-of-age story about a 12-year old Jewish girl named Patty Bergen. Ironically, she hides a German soldier named Anton Reiker after he escapes from the Prisoner-of-War camp in Jenkinsville, Georgia. (The Smithsonian has an article about POW camps like Fort Robinson, if you're curious.)

In the movie's opening scene, a massive train grinds to a halt and a group of German prisoners debark on the quay. There's a gathering of Georgia townsfolk anticipating their arrival, whispering among themselves, "I sure do hope my brother caught one of them nasty roaches." Muttered insults buttress people's courage until a woman, en-couraged by group animosity shouts, "Nah-zies!" The young Germans, looking no different than their own boys, are dehumanized by the townsfolk, deserving of contempt. This is the opening scene a few minutes into the movie, so don't worry. I didn't ruin the plot, but you can probably tell unicorns and care bears won't be making guest appearances.

Shortly after their arrival, Patty Bergen befriends Anton Reiker when the prisoners are allowed to make small transactions in Bergen's Dry Goods store where Patty works with her parents. She notices Anton's impressive vocabulary while selling him pencils and paper. Just like herself, Anton is a lover of words. The love of language is their commonality, their human connection.  Patty also identifies with Anton because she is an outsider in her baptist community. She's an outcast in her family, too. Patty is the familial scapegoat, the recipient of her father's projected self-loathing. He repeatedly and without qualm rejects Patty's attempts to love him and punishes her for looking like his contemptible mother. Maybe her father's self-hate, sacrificing his Jewish self for safety in conformity, is another reason why he rejects Patty. She persists in being her truest self, precocious as that may be. In a terrible scene towards the end of the film, her father confesses, "I remember the day you were born, Patty. It was the saddest day of my life."

Patty's mother is a shallow, dollish woman enmeshed with Patty's younger sister Sharon. At six-years of age, Sharon is the Golden child, the apple of her father's eye, the idealized image of her narcissistic mother. Patty struggles with her jealousy for a little sister whose ringlet-ted hair and pale complexion contrasts with Patty's unruly do and tomboy appearance. Mrs. Bergen of course, criticizes Patty for refusing to conform to socially and gender appropriate behaviors. "Would you please do something about your hair!" her mother reprimands. Never seeing the uniqueness and worth of her daughter, Patty's skin-deep mother values beauty on the outside, invalidating her daughter's true self because she never sees Patty. Never sees her as a worthy person in her own right.

It's heart-breaking, the dynamics between Patty and her narcissistic parents. If there's any fictional portrayal of the narcissistic parenting duo, this movie is it. The mealy-mouthed covertly self-loathing father projecting self-hatred into his child from the moment of her birth; and the overtly preening, self-involved mother who turned the other way when Patty was beaten by her father. In the truest sense of the word, Patty Bergen was an orphan, a motherless child.  Her parental abandonment was Patty's spiritual struggle. How does an unloved child know her worth, come to love?

My interest didn't rest with the love story between Patty and Anton, although their friendship was the vehicle for Patty's autonomy. He represented a choice as to whom she would be most loyal: her true and unpleasing self, or the false self pleasing others but denying herself. Her compassion for Anton, even as political enemies, defined her moral character, as did her willingness to struggle with a difficult choice: treason against her country, or treason against her self.

Esther Rolle and Kristi McNichol
Now frankly, love stories are nice once in a while. Even if mine didn't work out, I'd like to believe some do. Most reviews romanticize Anton and Patty's loving friendship (there's no hanky-panky for those with more prurient interests), however, the most crucial relationship in my view, is the love between Patty and Ruth---the Bergen's cook and housekeeper played by the formidable Esther Rolle.

Ruth doesn't pamper Patty with meaningless platitudes about how much Patty's parents love her yada yada yada even if they don't know how to show it, blah blah blah. Bring in the violins and zoom in on Patty's face as she suddenly realizes her job is to love her parents into loving themselves. Put a spiritual sticker on the film and stock the video store shelves. BLECH.

No, Ruth does NOT deny the brokenness of Patty's parents, which would only further Patty's suffering.  She tells it like it is, validating Patty's attempts to love irregular people whom she can never please enough to love her back.  With a healing dose of reality, Ruth releases Patty from the unholy bond of self-blame, self-fault, self-hatred. And then (get the Kleenex, folks) she insists Patty rise to the occasion despite the animosity of the townsfolk and her family, “Stand up. Straight!" Ruth commands. "You is a whole person of your own, a creature of God, and a thing that matters in this world. Stand straight up, girl. You've got person pride from this day on and I don’t never  wanna see you sloppin' your shoulders nor your soul again. Not never." And then she adds the spiritual release from Patty's prison, "There ain't no judge 'cept the one on high.” And you just know without any doubt that Ruth is speaking from her own experience in a judgmental and irregular world. She challenged Patty to respect herself; she didn't take away her pain and suffering. She validated Patty's willingness to wrestle with moral choices which never have clear answers. She didn't wring her hands with worry over public censure. She saw the courage it took for Patty to do what was wrong (treason) in order to do what was right (save Anton's life). She saw Patty and she'd been seeing Patty all along.

In the final scene of the movie when Patty is walking past self-righteous townsfolk pointing fingers and spitting in her face, she displays more courage than the men with fists, badges, spit and rifles. More dignity than the women with fancy clothes, status, and money. Where did Patty's self-respect come from? I think it came from the mother of her heart who taught Patty to love by seeing her, by confirming her uniqueness, her trueness. While it's commendable that Patty refused to dehumanize Anton as society had taught her, she had already trespassed forbidden barriers by allowing Ruth to love her---and herself to love Ruth. Ruth was the role model of Patty's virtue. I think that mothering one another, especially when love is lacking, nurturing our finest qualities in self and others too, rising above the temptation to sacrifice trueness for acceptance in a life-denying system, and allowing each other to stand tall, is what it means to be seen and loved. If that doesn't take a box of Kleenex, nothing will.

There were numerous themes in Summer of My German Soldier that will interest anyone studying narcissism. The themes that stand out for me are: objectification and dehumanization (otherizing); racism, nationalism, classism, religious bigotry, prejudice and sexism; superiority, self-righteousness, grandiosity; projection, blame, scapegoating, displacement; generational hatred and self-loathing; narcissistic families, societies, and communities. GroupThink.

P.S. I wondered if this story were centered around a male protagonist, would loyalty to his country be the definition of his character, requiring him to numb his heart and sacrifice the escapee to the authorities?  I won't be grading answers if you respond to that question. ha...

Summer Of My German Soldier is on The WoN Cinema 
or you can watch the full version embedded below (1:37:52).

Sorry! Movie is no longer available!

If you're interested in reading Bette Green's award-winning (but also 'banned') book, numerous editions are offered here: Amazon Booklist

The film is available on Amazon in VHS only. If anyone finds this film on DVD, please let me know. 


  1. Hi CZ, I remember watching this movie several times back when I was in my twenties. I cried and cried and totally identified with Patty. I felt like my parents were exactly like hers. I remember watching it and thinking, Jesus, if only I had ONE Esther Rolle type--anyone--who would care about me in the middle of it all. It's a great movie--thanks for reminding me about it. I wish I'd had the wherewithal back then to start studying what was wrong with my FOO. I was groping blindly, not knowing why I was so depressed and frozen all the time. love CS

    1. You saw it back then? In 1978, I had two little children and was probably watching Lawrence Welk and Police Woman. ha!

      I'd never seen the film nor even heard of the book but even so, had I watched this movie in 1978, it wouldn't have resonated with me the way it does today. Being immersed in the ACoN community and reading about the horrors so many have suffered at their parent's hands, has changed my awareness AND my beliefs.

      Even in 1978, the belief was that parents loved their children. The parental bond was a natural and automatic thing, like expecting the sun to rise in the morning. It's so hard for people to accept that "some" parents aren't ill-trained or misinformed...they are de-formed. As the film explains, they are 'irregular people', meaning they don't love the way other people do. I could NOT have understood back then, what I understand AND accept today.

      Love back,

  2. I remember watching this too -- way back then... :)

    And... fyi -- my very first published article was about German POWs who, interred in Alberta during the war, returned in later years to live. :)

    1. Hello Louise!

      I didn't google Canadian POW camps but voila! There they are, pictures and everything. As you mentioned, German soldiers were treated pretty well in Canada and the USA with few allegations of mistreatment (in comparison to how they were living in Germany at the time). That was a relief...beads of sweat broke out on my forehead when I started googling. I can only handle my idealism being shattered a couple times a year. Wouldn't want to use up my annual quota too soon.

      Nice to see your beautiful face. What a gorgeous smile! (and I'll bet you thought you'd never smile again, didn't you??)


  3. Hi CZ,
    I haven't seen the film so I stopped at the "now" bit ;) I'm going to watch it later and will be back to read the rest of the post :) love Kara

    1. I meant to post this before I went away but didn't get a chance, anyway, thanks so much for sharing this film, it really touched my heart. love Kara

    2. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Kara! I've watched it three times so perhaps I'll wait another year and watch it again when I don't remember having seen it at all.

      The joys of getting older. Love, CZ

  4. I read this book over and over as a child, never have seen the movie, but the book seemed to mean a lot to me. Now I know why. I remember relating to the character A LOT.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Anonymous. The book is highly recommended but I haven't read it yet. Maybe at some point?

      What's interesting is that once we have a 'name' for narcissism, we can go back to movies or books that meant so much to us. We didn't have a name for our experience, that's all. It's not that narcissism is a new disorder--it was always there. We just didn't now how to talk about it.


  5. I SO wish I had learned about all this stuff in my twenties. If only I could get back the decades I lost to depression over my Nparents. I knew in my bones but couldn't believe that my own mother didn't love me. I just knew it. It took forty years to be able to say it out loud to myself. I could've been free decades ago, and who knows how much energy that would've freed up.

    1. I am so sorry for the suffering children do because their parents are unable to see them as autonomous beings and value them for their individuality. Kids want so badly to love and be loved by their parents.

      Yes, who knows what we could have accomplished had we known about the narcissistic family twenty, thirty, forty years ago? I wouldn't have married that rat bazturd, I can tell you that.

      So on those sad days we all have, I say to myself, "At least you know now and that's amazing." It's amazing because one must must be WILLING to know it and that speaks to one's strength and humility. It's along old journey accepting reality, isn't it?

      Love, CZ


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