[4 December 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s not fancy by any means—few graphics, no re-enactments, no jump cuts, a literally one-note soundtrack—but there’s one notion that Death in the Bunker makes clear: You want a definition of a hellhole, try Berlin in the spring of 1945. The city is on fire. Black, sooty smoke fills the sky. Crumbling remains of once-great buildings spew into the street. Food is scarce. Bodies are plentiful, piling up amidst the rubble. The Red Army is pulverizing what’s left of the city with endless artillery fire. Door-to-door fighting continues as the Russians close in on the city center. And there’s another point that the film drives home with some key first-hand interviews and a hard-to-stomach barrage of rare archival footage: this destruction of Berlin didn’t have to happen. At least not quite as hellishly as this.
By the spring of 1945, the Nazis’ quest for world domination had been lost for months. Supplies—men and materiel—were running low, as was morale. Prepubescent Hitler-Jüngen were manning the lines, which, with a few exceptions, had collapsed or were collapsing on all fronts. And senior German military commanders acknowledged that the war was lost. One notable German commander, however, refused to accept the truth and the inevitable conclusion it would bring. Regardless, rather than concede defeat, the Führer commanded his troops to fight to the last death. Thus, Berlin, and its people, continued to die. As the film points out, an estimated 100,000-plus Berliners died of suicide alone during spring 1945.
In near-excruciating detail, German writer / director Michael Kloft gives a minute-by-minute account of the tension brought on by Hitler’s decision, mostly accomplished through Nick F. Bolton’s slightly spiteful narration. Hitler, his mistress Eva Braun, and a select group of advisers and attendants took refuge beneath the crumbling city in the titular bunker complex beneath the Reich Chancellery. It was here that Hitler finally admitted aloud that the war was lost. However, as the film illustrates, those in the bunker held a false hope about troops arriving from the front to rescue them—until the very end. This hope was also conveyed to the German people via the final gasps of the German propaganda machine. One moment of Death in the Bunker that really stands out is a vintage propaganda short in which a few clearly exhausted, defeated German soldiers are “interviewed” about progress on the front. They put on brave faces for the cameras, talking about getting home and even joking about their wives. That these men and /or members of their families may very well have died before the eventual German surrender underscores the absurdity of the situation.
The most powerful evidence of the absurdly hopeless situation in the bunker, though, is the filicide committed by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. Having brought them to the bunker, the parents systematically ordered their six children poisoned by, according to Hitler’s bodyguard Rochus Misch, one of the infamous Nazi “doctors” that had been responsible for inhumane torture in the death camps (he was now staffing a triage center at the Chancery) rather than have them grow up in a non-Nazi world. Kloft underscores this tragedy by juxtaposing propaganda films of Magda and the children in domestic bliss with the story of their senseless murder. The filmmaker’s intention here is clearly not to sensationalize. Rather, Kloft is showing just how blind the Nazi regime was willing to be to the suffering it was causing, even to these prized children.
In terms of production, Death in the Bunker is simple yet effective. It’s a straight-up documentary which, remarkably, interviews several bunker survivors, now into old age, giving mostly anecdotal details about the grave situation. Adjutant Bernd Freytag von Loringhoven recalls how the bunker complex was full of gourmet food and spirits, in surreal contrast to the world outside. He also notes that drunkenness became commonplace in the bunker as hope gave out. To hear him talk matter-of-factly about cyanide pills and suicide is chilling, yet he sounds bemused about the experience in general. Traudl Junge still becomes emotional and indignant when discussing Hitler’s last will and testament, which he dictated to her. Even in defeat and with suicide a forgone conclusion, the man was unrepentant, indifferent, and defiant—calling on his subjects to continue a fight that he was no longer up for. Says Junge via translation, “I was shocked and aghast to realize that this ‘will’ was basically just a repetition of the old slogans.”
The ultimate cowardice in these kinds of acts provides Kloft’s best insight into Hitler’s character. Others in the bunker who either went along with the plan or escaped could claim, and have, that they were merely following orders or saving their own lives. Not so for Hitler. Otherwise, Kloft is more concerned with chronology than psychology, recounting the day-by-day goings on and taking the witness’ testimony at face value, without offering much in the way of analysis. Therefore, those with a general knowledge of the circumstances will probably find much of the film cursory.
In a wise move, Kloft makes little of the relative controversy regarding Hitler’s and Braun’s remains after they were cremated. To explore conspiracy theories would be inconsistent with Kloft’s stance as a neutral, non-sensationalistic filmmaker. Instead, Kloft inserts some recent shots of post-Soviet Russian officials proudly displaying charred dentures and other remnants from Hitler, Goebbles, and others, that suggest that these men were actually in the bunker—and died there. It’s an abrupt conclusion, but seeing Hitler’s uniform draped over a mannequin, looking almost good as new, provides a powerful reminder of the tragedy of Nazi Germany, and the lessons that can still be learned from it. As Bolton narrates, by the time of his suicide in 1945, Hitler’s condition had become “inconsequential to most Germans.” It is telling of Hitler’s incessant megalomania that, had he been alive to hear those words, they would have been for him the ultimate insult and defeat.