DOWNFALL (Der Untergang)
Directed by Oliver Hirschbeigel (2004)
The most frightening things I can remember from my childhood in New York were the blackouts and air raid sirens during World War II and listening to the voice of Adolf Hitler on the radio. It was a voice that sent chills down my spine. That hypnotic voice, that chilling presence, is nowhere to be found in Oliver Hirschbeigel's Downfall, a powerful but novelistic account of the events that took place in Berlin during the final days of the Second World War. Bruno Ganz portrays the Fhrer as a broken and defeated man, stooped and palsied, raving about how his generals betrayed him, yet being kind to his wife Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), his secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), and his dog Blondi. It is a strong performance and his character fascinates us, yet Ganz' fiery rants as the Fhrer seem to be overly studied, not emanating from the core of his being.
The film is based on Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest and the memoir Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller, and is shot mainly within the confines of a closed space that approximates the dimensions of the real bunker. In that oppressive atmosphere, Ganz recreates the physical deterioration and emotional instability of the Fhrer who remains steadfast while everything around him is crumbling. Although faced with certain defeat, soldiers are still being sent to their death while Hitler insists that "every square meter" of German territory must be defended or left behind as "scorched earth". Those that do not fight are shot on the spot as traitors.
The city, however, is unable to defend itself against the continuing onslaught of Russian troops. Although military men know that there is no hope, no one is willing to challenge the Fhrer's orders or attempt to seize power. Many opt for suicide or go on drinking binges to obscure the failure of the military effort, although by that time, one of Hitler's chief objectives had been achieved with the annihilation of two-thirds of European Jews. As Hitler's wife Eva Braun throws lavish parties, the sound of artillery shells and bombs shake the bunker's walls. Both Eva and Traudl are shown as being so infatuated with Hitler that they dismiss reports of military failure and imminent death. Juliane Kohler portrays Eva Braun as a decent but superficial young woman, thinking only of serving the Third Reich. Lara depicts Traudl as young, apolitical, and hopelessly nave, the way Traudl views herself in her memoirs without ever discussing the impact her father's Nazi membership had on her life.
Hirschbeigel prides himself on his adherence to the truth and Downfall is, by and large, historically accurate. The film, however, singles out a few individuals for being "good Nazis" and does not always tell the entire story. One idealized is Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, who tells the Fhrer that he did not follow his orders to destroy the infrastructure in German cities. This did take courage, yet Speer's organizational genius is said to have prolonged the war for at least a year, with the consequent death of hundreds of thousands and widespread ruin. Hermann Fegelin, Eva Braun's brother-in-law is shown as being ready to question the fawning mentality of the German army, yet he was also a member of the Nazi SS, responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews. In another half truth, the doctor, Professor Schenk appears to be a selfless hero in treating the wounded, yet this was the same man who was responsible for the death of hundreds at Dachau during forced labor projects and medical experiments.
Despite its weaknesses, Downfall has a great deal of merit and it should be seen if only to appreciate the insanity of war and what can occur in a country where basic freedoms are denied. Of the many outstanding performances, two that deserve mention are Ulrich Matthes as the cold hearted Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbles and his wife Magda played by Corinna Harfouch. The sequence in which she calmly poisons her six children because she does not want them to grow up in a world without National Socialism are among the most horrifying I have ever seen. Another performance worthy of mention is that of 13-year old Donevan Gunia whose Peter Kranz represents the crumbling faade of the Hitler youth.
At the end, Hitler is a pathetic shell of his former self who refuses to admit his mistakes and begins to suffer from depression, spending his hours thinking of the best way to commit suicide. No compromise or surrender is ever contemplated though it might have saved thousands of lives. Hirschbeigel wants us to see that Hitler was just a flawed human being but human nonetheless. If this helps the German people to release feelings of guilt, it will have made a big contribution to world sanity. However, showing that Hitler had a human side does not help us to understand the man or his abhorrence of "the dirty and degrading chimera called conscience and morality," as well as "the burden of free will" and "personal responsibility" which he thought should only be left to those in positions of power.
Hitler may have been a good boss to his secretary and a kind husband but he never showed any signs of remorse when people died because of his actions. It was reported that Hitler used to laugh when Joseph Goebbels described the sufferings of the Jews. He once remarked that a guilty conscience was a Jewish invention. If he had some human qualities, they pale in significance with the breadth of his crimes that have attained an almost mythical dimension. In his devotion to achieving his ends through the use of unbridled physical strength and cruelty, he surpassed all his predecessors in his inhumanity and those are the terms in which he should be forever defined.