Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Downfall [Der Untergang] (2004)

Starring Bruno Ganz

Downfall is a German film that tells the narrative of the last days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, from the view of Hitler and those in the circle around him. As it was made by German filmmakers this was always going to be somewhat sensitive, and some suspected that there might be some attempt to elicit sympathy for the Führer. As 60 years have passed since the end of the war, might time have mellowed our perspective?

The film

The film starts with an epilogue in November 1942. Five hopeful young German secretaries are ushered into Hitler's "Wolf's Lair". They are nervous and deferential to the Führer, who puts them at ease but quickly decides that Traudl Junge is the one that he wants for the job (the film appears to imply that he chose her because of her Münich origins, that city being one of the founding places of Nazism). In his study he shows great affection for his Alsation bitch, Blondi, and when the nervous secretary makes a hash of dictation, gently suggests that they try again.

The story then jumps forward 2½ years to Berlin in April 1945. The war is lost, artillery shells from the Red Army are falling on the city (now in ruins) and the Soviets are within miles of the city centre. Hitler's inner circle, outwardly still uttering their loyalty, are already variously considering their actions, with the exception of Josef Goebbels who stays robotically faithful. With the exception of the handful of Waffen SS units, most of Berlin's defenders appear to be very young (teenage children) or overage men with white hair, outnumbered ten to one in some places according to one of the military commanders. Hitler himself is obviously a sick man, left hand shaking behind his back, and is basing his last hopes on armies that exist in reality only as flags on maps.

Like Titanic, Alexander and other historical epics, the viewer knows the historical outcome of this story in advance, and yet like any good film it creates an almost unbearable tension and even horror as we feel the final moments approaching. The main question of course is who will survive the sinking ship, although anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the final days of the Third Reich will probably spot who is not going to make it. The focus also plays on the ordinary people, the civilians and the soldiers, both groups killed or wounded in scores and suffering additional horrors from roaming gangs of Nazi thugs intent on maintaining "order".

Hitler himself at times recognises that all is lost, and yet at other times seems convince even himself that a couple of bold strokes can rescue the situation. Early in the film, with shells falling on Berlin, he actually tells Albert Speer that the destruction of German cities will make the task of rebuilding much easier, as he views Speer's fantastic architectural models for a future National Socialist capital. With such a capacity for self-deception, it is small wonder that the dictator can impart a strange confidence to others. In one scene he receives the girl flyer Hanna Reitsch and the wounded Ritter von Greim, whom he makes chief of the Luftwaffe (having finally dismissed Goering in a rage) with the assurances that soon he will have thousands of jet fighters to make the Luftwaffe the potent force it was in the early days. Ironically, it is mainly the army commanders, including the SS General von Mohnke, who can see the futility of such hopes, and yet for the most part they feel compelled by their oaths, in some cases even beyond Hitler's death, to obey.

A key element in the film is fanaticism, oddly enough most fervent among some of the women. Eva Braun is devoted to Hitler, although she seems a normal enough woman in other ways. Even after pleading in vain for the life of her brother-in-law Fegelein whom Hitler has ordered shot for treason, she still says simply "You're the Führer". The fervour of one of the nurses and of Hanna Reitsch is almost groupie-like, but interestingly also affects the older Magda Goebbels, who in one scene has hysterics as she pleads with her Führer to try to leave Berlin. This fanaticism turns evil when she tells Speer that she does not want the children to grow up in a world without National Socialism, and later we see her administer poison to her six young children, killing them in their sleep before she and her dark husband step out into the garden to commit suicide. By contrast, another group of Germans is seized with despair and whiles out the last days in an orgy of drunkenness and sexual licence, and thus the atmosphere in the bunker oscillates between crazy self-indulgence and an almost religious mania.

We see the events unfold chiefly through the eyes of the loyal Traudl Junge, who sees and hears most of what goes on in the Chancellory. Although faithful to her boss, she is under no illusions as to some of his entourage. One of the key points in the film is her one-to-one conversation with Eva Braun shortly before the latter's suicide pact with her husband. Eva is lamenting how much her man has changed since she came to Berlin, and Traudl agrees: she finds him so kind as a private man, and yet he says such brutal things when..... "When he is the Führer?" interjects Eva shrewdly as they both smoke, and Traudl concurs.

This brings us of course to Hitler himself. Bruno Ganz's portrayal of one of arguably the wickedest men of all time could have been either farcically cardboard or a minefield, and it is a tribute to the Swiss actor that he shows the Austrian dictator as human, sometimes even kind, without diminishing our awareness of his evil deeds and thoughts and often his dislikeable personality. Early on we learn to encounter Hitler's rages when he feels he has been thwarted, which he usually boils down to treachery: treachery on the part of the generals, treachery on the part of Goering, treachery on the part of Himmler.... Each of these rages, even if partly justifiable in the case of Goering and Himmler, turns into a foaming, rabid fit that is both childish and almost devilish. Ironically, in his tirade against the generals (four of whom are standing uncomfortably before his desk like boys summoned before the headmaster), Hitler concludes that he should have had all his higher officers shot in the same manner as his adversary Stalin did. Ganz shows this aspect of Hitler brilliantly, waving his hands and bulging his eyes before sinking into an exhausted sullenness. Another unpleasant aspect of Hitler is his ingratitude and hard-heartedness: if the Germans don't win, then they deserve to lose and to have everything taken from them, even life itself. The dictator callously assigns the people who have more or less unwaveringly supported him to the dustbin. One thing is noticeable as the film progresses: in Adolf Hitler's heart there is no self-doubt, no qualms, no remorse, no wondering if the path taken had been the wrong one. To his end the man who is courteous and kind to some of his staff and genuinely appreciates loyalty, and who had millions of people murdered, is convinced of the rightness of what he did.

Tragedies abound throughout the film, of course. A poignant subplot is the teenage crew of the heavy flak gun, sworn to defend their city. The youngest, a small blond boy, is taken off to the Reichs Chancellory to receive an award from Hitler himself for destroying two tanks. In the meantime, in a suicide pact made as the battle turns against them, the crew receive the coup de grace from their commander who then in turn shoots himself. The boy returns to find them all dead and wakes up next day in a crater surrounded by human remains. He gets back home to his parents, but later both the adults fall victim to one of the odious roaming Nazi kangaroo courts. At a higher level in the chain of command, the honest and forthright General Weidling, who does his best to level with Hitler and after the latter's death calls a ceasefire to reduce the suffering of the citizens, falls into Soviet captivity and dies in 1956 before he can return to Germany. There is even something poignant in the death of Blondi, Hitler's dog on whom the cyanide is first tried out.

Cinematic considerations

In terms of verisimillitude, Ganz himself has been made to resemble Hitler reasonably closely, but not all the cast members have this same degree of likeness. Josef Goebbels in particular does not look much like the historical character, although it does not take long to pick him out. On the other hand I thought the actors playing Jodl and Keitel bore a reasonable resemblance to their characters. In any event a good film should not have to depend too much upon such factors.

Although this is a 15 certificate in the UK, I think it fair to warn viewers that there are a number of unpleasant scenes. Apart from the general violence of warfare, there are graphic shots of amputations in makeshift operating theatres, and some of the suicides are rather shocking. Having said that, I do not think that the boundaries of taste have been violated - the violence is there to sober us, not to titillate us.

Final thoughts

In a way this film has been long overdue. From a German perspective I feel it shows that the Germans have come to terms with their past and can honestly face up to Hitler's evil deeds (and those into which he led a great many others) without either downplaying them or making him out to be so black as to in essence be an excuse for them.

And this raises the fundamental question. In showing Hitler as a human being, albeit a despicable one, Bruno Ganz has done us all a great favour. It is easy from the comfort of an armchair to piously denounce such a man and his followers as devils or people so utterly depraved as to be beyond redemption. But this dodges the issue. Hitler was human and not without virtues, as indeed were Stalin, Mao and notorious criminal masterminds and gangsters. If anything we should tremble - the journey from personal bitterness and grudge-bearing to bearing the malign power of life and death for evil over millions seems to be a short and horribly easy one.

Anyone interested in further reading on this subject should probably read Joachim C Fest's book "Inside Hitler's Bunker" on which this film was largely based, or see the documentary made with Traudl Junge shortly before she died in 2002. An interesting angle on the moral and theological considerations comes from Grossman's "The Cross and the Swastika", written by the Lutheran minister who was chaplain to some of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, including Goering, Hess, Speer, Jodl and Keitel.

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