Late in the controversial German film Downfall (Der Untergang), Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), wife of Hitler’s notorious henchman, methodically inserts cyanide capsules into the mouths of her sleeping children. They are too good to live in a world without National Socialism, she says. The film’s searing portrayal of an utterly pathetic fanaticism is its most enduring effect.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s visually stunning account of the Third Reich’s final days opens with Hitler, brilliantly acted by Bruno Ganz, interviewing Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) to be his secretary. The sight of the Fuhrer sweetly caressing his dog Blondie and displaying affection for the nervous Traudl scarcely jibes with familiar images of a fulminating, wildly gesticulating mass-murderer. Where is the “monster” we’ve come to know? Downfall‘s effort to humanize the Nazis have incited on controversy, as critics claim it engenders sympathy for Hitler and his murderous cohorts.
The appearance of sympathy is due, in part, to the fact that we see the coda of the Nazi empire through the eyes of an unwitting young secretary holed up in Hitler’s famous bunker. To Traudl, the subject of the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, Hitler is a caring old man who has been betrayed by Nazi generals in his moment of need. At one point, swept up by her emotions, she tells Hitler and his inner circle that she’d rather commit suicide than abandon him before the imminent Soviet capture of Berlin. But later, when in the confidence of her colleague, a bewildered Traudl rues offering up her life so cavalierly. Though she never turns decidedly against him, Traudl’s image of a benign Hitler is complicated by his apoplectic fits of anti-Semitism and disdain for German soldiers and civilians.
In these scenes, Ganz’s Hitler is realized beyond the familiar caricature. His palsied hand tucked behind his back, Hitler’s lumbering body stiffens and then suddenly explodes, as if emerging violently from a cocoon, when he learns of the Nazi army’s poor state. Upon regaining his composure, he promptly restores his disheveled patch of hair to its famous slicked-back posture. The instances of Hitler’s loathsome worldview sharply counteract the occasions when he is respectful and kind to others, such as when he courteously praises his cook’s cheese raviolis. Lest we forget, the man who spilled so much blood was a vegetarian.
Downfall‘s preoccupation with a flesh-and-blood Hitler is central to its meditation on fanaticism. What the Nazi faithful saw was not a millennial madman bent on swallowing the world whole, but, rather, a forceful leader who promised them an Aryan utopia. Whether it’s the young girl who proudly mouths all the Nazi shibboleths, or the young SS officer who won’t abide capitulation, these scenes remind us of the pitiable nature of ideological zealotry. When these characters blow their brains out, we look on with unmitigated disgust. That they could be so committed to the Nazi cause appalls us. To emphasize this point, the film relies too heavily on Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel), who is visibly aghast at the fanaticism he witnesses, chastising Nazi diehards for their heroic pretensions. But we wonder why the good doctor, through whose eyes we witness the sawing off of soldiers’ limbs, never noticed this before. Impending defeat has a way of refining the powers of perception.
The images soldiers and civilians having their limbs amputated remind us that Germans were also victims of Hitler. The film offers glimpses of underground shelters where doctors tend to the sick and wounded and where the hungry seek cover and food. Such overt references to German suffering were, until recently, rare. But of late, writers like the late W.G. Sebald in On the History of Natural Destruction (1999) and Günter Grass in his novel Crabwalk (2002) have explored the theme of German suffering during the war. Because of the distance of afforded by time, German intellectuals are now more inclined to tackle this unpopular subject.
The scenes of Hitler railing against German weakness and blaming them for their miserable state suggest he cared little for his fellow Germans. Taken together with the images of bombed-out homes and widespread deprivation, the film clearly recalls the steep price Germans paid under Hitler. They too were victims. Those of us who believe such claims are nonsense may be forgiven for our lack of sympathy, given the well-documented extent of the German people’s complicity in the Nazi horror. And though Downfall ends with the real-life Traudl’s acceptance of responsibility, as she proclaims her ignorance was inexcusable, the film’s dramatization of German suffering throws such declarative statements into question.
Like the works of Sebald and Grass, Downfall is best understood in the context of post-war German self-examination. For generations trying to make sense of such an infamous history, it provokes serious reflection. But Downfall‘s focus on German suffering somewhat vitiates its value as a tool for understanding the past. This is too bad, since the film has much to offer. Its powerful portrayal of the extremist mind is relevant for our own age of religious fundamentalism. Ultimately, though, the film’s misguided effort to cast Germans as victims reminds us that the seminal verdicts of history are not quickly forgotten.