Saturday, April 09, 2005

Film Review: Downfall

Hot Flash By Eric Cox
Curtain Time for Hitler
Downfall (Der Untergang)
Released by Newmarket Films
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and some nudity

Previous Columns
04/06/05 - Schiavo, the Pope, and life lessons
04/04/05 - Al-Qaeda and poverty
04/01/05 - Crossing the threshold
03/30/05 - Boston Legal, meet Terri Schiavo
Click here to view the archives

This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of the effective end of perhaps the most astonishingly evil rgime in human history.
When Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, Germany had already been defeated in World War II, though Hitler had resolutely refused to surrender.

In the new German film Downfall (Der Untergang), which depicts the Nazi regime's final days deep in a bunker beneath Berlin, Hitler (Bruno Ganz) positively bristles at the merest suggestion of retreat. When his generals ask him to consider the consequences for Berlin's civilian population of prolonging the war, an erratic Hitler retorts that the German people are cowards for losing the war and will pay with their blood.

The same attitude is resolutely held by Hitler's propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), who later in the film coolly states that when the Germans gave the Nazi Party an electoral mandate, they took the risk that Hitler would fail and effectively handed him a knife to be put to their throats.

No one needs to be reminded of the vicious cruelty of the Nazis, of course, but the positively chilling effect of Downfall is that it presents such scenes in documentary fashion, presenting comments like these in the context of other scenes in which characters like Hitler and Goebbels behave like normal, well-adjusted human beings. These are not caricatures. There are no ominous musical cues to tell us when we are to feel anger, surprise, sadness, or fear. Downfall is like no other World War II movie I have ever seen, and it is by far one of the best.

Some critics, notably David Denby of the New Yorker, have excoriated Downfall for presenting a sympathetic portrait of Hitler. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing sympathetic about this Hitler. As portrayed by the brilliant Bruno Ganz, the Hitler of Downfall is a charismatic, intelligent, paranoid, delusional, ambitious, reflective, despicable, living, breathing human being. It is an eery, disturbing performance.

What is so remarkable is that Ganz manages to be convincing whether he is portraying the unbelievably heartless Hitler, or the Hitler who at times is gentle and kind toward his aptly named young secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara).

Screenwriter Bernd Eichinger and director Oliver Hirschbiegel clearly intend for the naive Junge to be the conduit through which we experience and grapple with the movie. The film is based on Junge's memoir, and the opening scene depicts Junge arriving at the bunker with a group of other secretaries in the middle of the night for an interview with the Fuehrer.

Whether or not Junge's naivete is credible remains a source of great controversy in Germany today, as a younger generation asks how their parents and grandparents could have been as ignorant of the Nazis' atrocities as some, like Junge, claim to have been.

As for the screen version of Downfall, no excuses are offered for the Traudl Junges of the world. The film does not present Junge as blissfully unaware of Hitler's attitude toward Jews, the so-called survival-of-the-fittest, or the duty of all Germans to die for their Fuehrer: Junge hears all of this. Rather, the film presents her as constantly amazed, bewildered, and horrified by Hitler's statements, very much like a child who finds it impossible to reconcile her grandfather’s tenderness with his casual racism.

Junge's reaction is plausibly presented in Downfall, though it certainly will not be the reaction of any contemporary viewer. It is foolish for astute critics like Denby to believe that Western audiences would react to a film like Downfall with anything like moral confusion. Realizing that even someone as brutal as Hitler loved his dog is not the type of thing that could lead a reasonable person to excuse the Holocaust. On the contrary, forcing oneself to draw distinctions between an individual's capacity for warm feelings on one hand and the moral content of his actions on the other is a precondition for sound moral judgment. Would that more Traudl Junges had been capable of drawing such distinctions.

But enough about the silly controversy surrounding Downfall. It is a remarkable, hair-raising, thoroughly researched, two-and-a-half-hour movie well worth viewing. Unfortunately, you won’t get the chance to see many movies like it.

Eric Cox is a research fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research (SIPR) and a movie columnist for

No comments: