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It was a scene out of Hitchcock. I woke up and stared through the picture window at the expanse of rolling hills. They were a startling watercolor. I would have enjoyed the view more if I knew what was going on. And if I knew where this place was. The problem as I saw it - I had no idea where in the world I had woken up.
This can happen when you travel. Sometimes you wake up, look around, and the ordinary geometric forms of, say, a desk, a window or trees can float there in front of you without a sense of place. You know it’s a desk or a tree - you just have no idea whose desk or tree it is. Or, for that matter, where they belong on a map.
For my part, not only could I not place this hotel (it definitely looked like a hotel room – clean, modern, neat), I couldn’t place the country, nor, sadly, the continent. The good news: I still knew who I was. And I knew I had been traveling.
Floating in this bed, without a clue, I was suddenly liberated from schedule, responsibility, commitments… I should have enjoyed this rare moment. I could have meditated… or something. Instead, some compulsive inner part of my brain began scrambling, like a rodent furiously digging through a tunnel searching for food.
I needed to solve this puzzle quickly. Why? I didn’t know. Maybe I had a train to catch.
I got up and scanned the room. There was a water bottle on the bureau. It was glass and it had a nice minimal design. And the word “VOSS” running up it. Sounded European-ish. Ok, I remembered we had been shooting in Paris recently… and then Amsterdam. So then, this must be Europe.
Searching out the window again, those deep emerald hills looked like something from “The Sound of Music”. Austria? Germany? Yes!... Berchtesgaden. I am at the new hotel in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. And those peaks beyond aren’t the Rockies or the Himalayas… they are the Alps.
How odd that my brain had repressed this location. Was it because this place had been Hitler’s country retreat? Those picturesque hills out the window – you could just imagine Der Fuhrer waist-deep in the willowy grass, hand in hand with his girlfriend Eva Braun.
I stared out the window. There is Hitler picking flowers for Eva. Hitler’s in love. I had to go to the bathroom.
With cold water on my face, I mused… I had conned myself into thinking I didn’t know where I was. But of course I knew. Deep down I must have known. I just didn’t want to. Clearly, I had some conflicts about this place.
It was here, overlooking the delicate edelweiss, Hitler had planned his invasions of Poland, France and Russia.
It was also here he appears in photographs welcoming throngs of visiting schoolchildren.
He stands there smiling, delighting in the company of these beautiful youngsters.
Such is the amazing human mind, that it can so easily split itself in half - one-side hiding from the other when the occasion calls.
But the Reich had succumbed long ago. Now before me was a new Germany of peace and prosperity. This elegant hotel reeked of good fortune and good taste. It was all glass and stacked stone, balanced to frame the awesome crests beyond it. The architect behind this place was a genius. It fairly screamed “you have arrived.” I wonder if that’s how Hitler had felt in this meadow, gazing out at the towering peaks. Probably.
That Peaceful Easy Feeling
I couldn’t deny it. The place was beautiful and alpine serene. Once I accepted I was in Berchtesgaden, I really enjoyed this peaceful valley. We advanced our video shoot on glamorous terraces and through geometric lobbies, always with the looming Bavarian summits in the background.
I just had to ignore the reality that the Nazi A-Team - Goering, Goebbels and Speer – had followed their boss and also built country homes here. It had been a regular Mr. Hitler’s neighborhood, all of them within yodeling distance of each other.
After a few days of shooting, we were wrapping up a rather perfect lunch in the very modern hotel restaurant and were quietly discussing our plans. One of my crew was about to speak when a loud bang ricocheted across the room.
A hand had smashed onto the table, coming down like an iron fist, destroying the quiet coffee time. Then a man’s rough and angry voice shouted out, invading the crumbling calm:
“THIS ISN’T FUN ANYMORE!!!!”
We jerked around to see a businessman in a nice suit, accompanied by a well-dressed woman, rising to his feet. Waiters hurried over to them, the maitre d’, close behind. Other hotel staff brought up the perimeter to see what the trouble was.
The man was agitated, pointing and poking his finger in the air. He was furious. I couldn’t imagine what the problem could be. The food and service in this hotel had been near perfect.
Moments like this can be disorienting and uncomfortable. You feel bad for everyone in the room, even the person causing the scene. Something had slipped out of control, and now we were all feeling a little squirmy.
“Hey guys, why don’t we go shoot outside?”, I offered to my crew. They happily obliged. As we stood to leave, I saw the hotel manager joining the huddle to hear the man’s story.
This was a good sign. I liked this manager – he was smart, warm, friendly and really knew the hotel business. I had had some drinks with him earlier, and he always offered intriguing stories about the hotel and the history of this place. If anyone could find the “fun” again for this unhappy guest, it would be this manager.
Peace for Our Time
That evening we were winding down, sitting before the fireplace, taking in the glass wall that framed the pinnacles beyond. The hotel manager sidled up to our little party. He, of course, wanted to know how our shooting was progressing. No problems there, I assured him. And how was his guest?
The manager shook his head and brought a chair up close. The guest had been quite upset about the service, nothing had been right. Not his room, not the meals – in short, everything here had been a disaster. His words said it all, “This isn’t fun anymore.” He demanded his stay be comped… no charge.
So, the manager noted with a smile, he had done a little investigative work within his network. It turns out this “businessman” had displayed similar outbursts in other hotels in Germany and beyond. In short, he was a con man, a huckster who been getting a free ride at every 5-star resort he and his lady friend had checked into.
The manager had confronted his “guest” with the anecdotal evidence and the man stormed off to his room, vowing to tell his many wealthy friends about how poorly he had been treated at Berchtesgaden.
But his act at lunch had been so convincing. I had felt his distress. And, I had been conned. What was in the air here? There seemed to be a few too many shades of alt-reality to absorb at this altitude.
I walked over to the big window and looked out across the darkening valley. It was but a stone’s throw from this spot that Hitler had invited the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain to his country home. It was 1938 and war was looming. The Fuhrer had demanded that Britain and France not interfere as the Reich “encouraged” parts of Czechoslovakia to ally itself with Germany. On September 15, Chamberlain flew from London to Berchtesgaden to discuss the situation with Hitler.
Under these same hills, the two leaders talked for three hours and Hitler laid the groundwork for a peace treaty with Britain. His terms: the British merely had to allow the Czechs the right to “self-determination” in exchange for the promise that Germany would not execute any hostilities.
Perhaps it was the crystalline alpine air, or maybe it was Hitler’s passionate promises of neutrality. He clearly had a very persuasive style. Or, it might have been Chamberlain’s great desire for peace that blinded him to Hitler’s obvious intentions. Clearly, one cannot be conned if some part of the psyche doesn’t want it. We can then assume, the reverse must also be true. Encouraged by his day in Berchtesgaden, the Prime Minister rushed home to confer with his cabinet.
Just a few weeks later, the two met again in Munich and signed the infamous peace agreement. Upon his return to England, a victorious Chamberlain promised the world there would be “peace for our time”.
Less than a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and declared war on France and the UK.
A Joke Is Born
Of course, when the guys and I dined from that point forward, if anything was even slightly amiss, one of us would suddenly catch up the others, shouting, “This isn’t fun anymore!” and get up to leave. This also became a routine at airports, in heavy traffic and whenever we got bored. It was always good for a laugh. At one point, we had to share a bathroom and one of the guys belted out that same line from beyond the bathroom door. Followed by a flush.
Just down the hill from the hotel grounds stood a few ramshackle structures. We learned this was where allied officers decamped when they took control of this infamous site. Every military unit in the area had wanted to be the first to capture Berchtesgaden.
However, elements of the 3rd Infantry division had beaten out the 101st Airborne for this prize. The victorious infantrymen raided every Nazi wine cellar they could find – the whole neighborhood. Hitler’s home and those of the others were soon demolished.
Toward the end of our shoot, we stood out on the vast green lawns, our cameras pointed to the sky. There, we picked up the specks of hang gliders descending from above, gently circling, as they rode on the warm air currents.
Here in these rolling hills where much of World War II had been conceived, these man-birds came floating down from the sky. Touching down lightly, the happy aviators were a contradiction to all that had been cooked up in this spot.
Indeed, Berchtesgaden was a joyful place – so much majesty a normal person would be inspired to do marvelous things. Looking out over this glorious wonderland, some are inspired to descend from the mountains and fly above its meadows like angels. Others immersed themselves in oils, pastels or Instagram to capture and share the deep colors before them.
And then there are some special souls who would drink in these transcendent surroundings and be inspired… to invade Poland.
Ok, perhaps that’s not how you or I would process this beauty, but we all have different interpretations of love. And make no mistake, this is all ultimately about love – how we need it, how we get it, how we share it….
It’s My Party
So how does a con man get others to believe in his vision? What sort of ridiculous threats or promises does he have to offer the gullible for them to embrace his word over any semblance of common sense?
It’s one thing for a hustler to con an individual… but to con a nation? How desperate were the German people to crave so obvious an unhinged character like Adolph Hitler to take over their lives?
True, they had suffered great deprivations after World War I and Hitler promised them the world. They willingly bought his conman’s vision, sacrificing what little they had. They gobbled up his ridiculous promises and slogans in a desperate desire to believe in something. Then they raced for the cliffs, oblivious to the unequalled ruin it would bring.
It took generations to rebuild the German psyche. This beautiful hotel where we slept, ate and worked was a symbol of a determined re-birth. It wasn’t just about prosperity – it was also about the re-gaining of self-worth.
On our last day, the manager gave us a warm send-off and, of course, he comped our stay. We wished him well and much continued success. There were many heartfelt handshakes all around. It was just people enjoying the familiar process of give and take – the most natural thing in the world.
We went down to the underground garage to get our car. There he was – the conman and his lady friend, sliding into their ultra-sleek coupe. He fired up all twelve cylinders and showed a big, wide smile as he roared past us, up the ramp and onto the bright, Bavarian highway.
And why shouldn’t he be smiling? For he knew, like every conman and swindler knows, there would always be an endless supply of patsies down the road, waiting to be snookered if he gave them just enough magic to hang onto. And thus conned, they would be only too eager to give him their hopes, their money and maybe someday, even their votes.
"These were the best times of my life.
My great plans were forged here"
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