(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)
As you get older you place more trust (perhaps of course misguided) in your own instinct as a key to all things, and in that vein the question of why the German people capitulated to Adolf Hitler seems less mysterious to me recently than it used to be. These parallels may strike readers as grievously overstated, but observe how a large portion of Americans are demonstrably willing to overlook any number of Iraqi-related atrocities on the basis of a broad statement of overall national purpose. Likewise, I found the Terri Schiavo case extremely depressing – both on the basis of the thing itself and given the vast media attention devoted to it – as an index of how easily political, legislative and societal interest can be displaced into an issue of (I’d argue) exceptionally marginal relevance. To put it glibly, the public interest in maintaining the (at best) incremental consciousness of that one woman seems laughably minor set against the horrendous fiscal, environmental and other challenges facing our planet’s four billion people, yet the dynamics of a single anomalous (but easily sloganized) case study sweep all else away. Of course, this merely illustrates the same point as celebrity trials or Janet Jackson’s exposed breasts or one-off gruesome murders or much else. Extrapolate that back sixty or seventy years, to a Germany still smarting from the effects of World War One, with less media transparency and less evolved attitudes in a host of areas, and factor in Hitler’s initial success as an economic revitalist, and I think it’s at least intuitively possible to sense how even good people might have turned the other cheek.
Downfall is a new German film about Hitler – the object of great debate in its home country; it was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film (I observe that it’s already in the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 movies). It’s attracted some negative commentary for whitewashing Hitler, and I think it’s at least possible to see where this comes from. In the film’s first scene, interviewing young women for a secretarial position in 1942, he’s kindly and avuncular; he forgives the young Traudl Junge when she screws up the secretarial test and allows her another chance. She gets the job, and immediately after this the movie switches to its main setting, the Hitler of the final days, as the allies close in on Berlin and he’s closeted in the bunker with his key generals and support staff, planning a series of increasingly desperate and impractical counter-assaults, gradually realizing the hopelessness of his position. In the last years of her life, the real Junge sat for interviews that were recorded in the recent film Blind Spot, and much of what’s depicted in Downfall comes from her recollections, although the film isn’t explicitly subjective.
At the very end of the film, in a clip from Blind Spot, Junge reflects that her youth was no justification for her ignorance about Hitler – “it would have been possible to have found things out.” The film doesn’t seem to be particularly about this though. Hitler doesn’t mention the Jews, for example, until relatively late in the film, and the film doesn’t show anything of the genocide. In one intriguing moment, he dictates a passage denouncing international Jewry and she looks quickly at him as if questioning whether he really means to say that. But for the most part, the film presents a Hitler capable of resenting anyone, including the German people as a whole. “If my own people fail this test,” he says as Berlin threatens to collapse, “I will not shed one tear for them.”
Bruno Ganz is effective as Hitler but I don’t know if there’s anything new to be excavated there (in an interview, Ganz said: “Having played him, I cannot claim to understand Hitler…ultimately, I could not get to the heart of Hitler because there was none.”) In a way, the portrayal of Eva Braun is more quietly horrifying. Apparently caught in extreme denial, she initiates dances and soirees within the bunker and adamantly refuses to leave; she never expresses a single political thought and yet accedes to his plans for marriage and then suicide without any apparent reservation. Braun seems to have an autonomous spirit and yet she sublimates herself entirely to Hitler. We can only guess at the roots of this – if known at all, they lie back before what the film depicts – but it illustrates how you better perceive Hitler’s power by looking at others than at the man himself. The portrayal of Goebbels’ wife, agonized at the thought of her children growing up in a world without National Socialism, is even more striking.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s previous film was Das Experiment, about an experiment involving the division of male volunteers into prisoners and guards in a fake prison, where things spiral out of control and become flamboyantly violent. That film ramped up so quickly, and was so obviously designed for visceral impact that it didn’t carry much of a sociological payoff, despite its effective steely look and superbly maintained pace. At the time I wondered to what extent it should be viewed as a specifically German concoction (the word “Nazi” is only spoken once by a prisoner, and in return he gets a whack that ultimately kills him); I concluded that although its German origins gave it a certain specific resonance, the film basically could have been made anywhere.
A Different Film
Downfall, obviously, has an equally bleak look about it. The film is aesthetically fairly restrained; near the end, I registered a cut from gasoline being poured on Hitler’s and Braun’s dead bodies to a drink being poured into a glass by Junge, and this stood out in the film’s context as being almost flashy. It takes on a bleak comic undertone as discipline collapses within the bunker, with soldiers sitting around getting drunk and, eventually, people shooting themselves dead at every turn. After Hitler dies, the film continues for another half hour or so, but none of this material seemed particularly necessary to me.
In the end, the film is always interesting, but seems to me to serve no particular specific function that hasn’t been addressed elsewhere. But maybe I’m taking too much for granted here. I grew up in the UK in the late 60’s and 70’s, when depictions of World War Two were as endemic in the culture as reality shows are in our present one. At the end, Downfall summarizes what happened to the various individuals portrayed, and only one of them is still alive. So the direct threads of memory are becoming thin, and we know about the revival of extreme nationalism across Europe. As I said at the start, I think it’s sadly easy to sense something of how a brute like Hitler succeeds. But I think the lesson is in how the brute is created, not in how he destroys himself. Ultimately, I suppose I’d rather have seen a different film.