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Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Oscar nominated drama about the final days of Adolf Hitler, Downfall, will sit on the special shelves of the cinematic future which contain those films that can and do affect individuals, and hence change our world, writes Andrew L. Urban; it is a film of great consequence.

In the overcrowded supermarket of movies, where sheer volume mitigates against selectivity, Downfall stands out as a film of great consequence. Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, writing (September 17, 2004) in The Guardian about Downfall, said, “...such a film is a part of the continuing, gradual, but inexorable process of seeing the Hitler era as history – even more important, feeling it to be history.” Downfall will sit on the special shelves of the cinematic future which contain those films that can and do affect individuals, and hence change our world. These changes may be imperceptible and slow, but as the decline of racism in America and the fall of communism in Europe, or the rise of democracy in the Middle East show, slow change is more durable than instant turn-around.

Two of the films on that shelf would be Alan Parker’s: Mississippi Burning (civil rights in the US) and The Life of David Gale (capital punishment). Many would expect to find Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (war) on that shelf, and a recent addition would be Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (tribal genocide), among others. 

"the first attempt by any filmmaker to find the context"

Downfall, 60 years after the events it portrays at the end of World War II, is the first attempt by any filmmaker to find the context and thus the deepest truth about not only Adolf Hitler but his Germans. Today’s Germans tend to claim they are not the same Germans, and after seeing Downfall, one is inclined to believe them – although not quite as it is intended.

The scenes in Downfall that make me say that; one is the film’s most shattering moment, when the Goebbels – who carefully killed their own children to spare them the horrors of living in a world without National Socialism. And throughout the film we see glimpses of his secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), swept away with the moment. These people represent the two opposite ends of German society of the time. The furiously dedicated Nazis, and the naïve innocents. Both groups were blind followers.

Producer / co-writer Bernd Eichinger and director Oliver Hirchsbiegel based the film on two books – also representing opposites: first on historian Joachim Fest’s Der Untergang (The Downfall, Inside Hitler’s Bunker, The Last Days of the Third Reich) and second, on the memoirs of Hitler’s private secretary at the time, young Traudl Junge (Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary). Says Eichinger: “Fest gave me the timeframe, Traudl gave me the characters who could hold it all together.”

In the dead of a November night in 1942, a group of young women are escorted by SS officers through the woods to Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters in Eastern Prussia. They are candidates for the post of personal secretary to the Fuhrer. Among them is 22-year-old Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) a fresh-faced girl from Munich. The women are ushered into the waiting room outside Hitler’s private office, each eager to make a good impression. The door to the office opens, and Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) enters. The women rise to their feet, and the Fuhrer greets them, one by one, with a handshake and an inquiry as to where they hail from. Traudl is chosen for the job and she is overcome with joy at the thought of serving beside her Fuhrer – whatever he stands for she doesn’t seem to really grasp. 

"The final days tell us a lot..."

Some two and a half years later, Traudl Junge witnessed the last days, last hours, last minutes of the Third Reich, as Hitler and Eva Braun had a quiet lunch before retiring to their drawing room inside the bunker, closing the door to committing suicide in private.

“The final days tell us a lot about how the mass fanaticism functioned in the regime's earlier years and how it continued to reign until the bitter end,” says Eichinger

This is the first German film to broach the subject of Hitler straight-on since G.W. Pabst's 1956 Der Letste Akt (The Last Act) which was told from the point of view of an ordinary German soldier, played by Oskar Werner. Says Hirschbiegel, “In terms of German film history, we are breaking new ground here, since there is no cinematic frame of reference. After reading the book, it was clear to me that if I committed myself, then it would have to be a total and complete commitment, meaning that I was going to spend two years of my life in the Third Reich, with all of those characters and that primitive ideology… My hair stood on end. My wife advised me against it. Yet I noticed that it just wouldn't leave me in peace, and in my heart, before accepting the project, I knew that I had already opened myself up to it.” 

Ganz had his own reservations about playing Hitler – until the screen tests in Munich, as Eichinger recalls. “Bruno was somewhat concerned, so I suggested that he try it with make-up. And it worked right away. When the make-up artist was finished, Bruno came out in costume – he had prepared himself very well for the screen test – and the effect was so stunning that the entire crew was silent. We showed him the test afterwards and he said, with a bit of Swiss hesitation: ‘Yes, I think I should do it.’” Ganz concurs, “I was quite baffled by how close I had come to Hitler, at least on the outside. And then I was possessed by the sheer ambition that every actor knows: I wanted to play the role.”

"unable to make the distinction between the acts of a dictator and the acts of man"

Ganz is eerily sensational in the role of Hitler, whose furious outbursts – berating his closest officers for failure – alternate with him patting his dog, sweet-talking his mistress Eva Braun and being considerate towards his secretary. Some have been offended by this portrayal of Hitler, unable to make the distinction between the acts of a dictator and the acts of man. Did they expect him to kick his dog, beat his mistress and spit on his secretary? Only gross blindness to the human condition could generate such antipathy to Ganz’s Hitler. 

History’s most murdering dictators, from Josef Stalin to Saddam Hussein, had loving families and friends; they had a private side that in no way lessened the evil deeds they unleashed. Coming fully to terms with Hitler as does Hirschbiegel in Downfall, he enables this reviled figure in recent history to come alive, as if stepping out of the cement constraints of a bad statue, his features forever frozen in a moment of unhinged, hate-filled screaming. Downfall illuminates not just Hitler’s personality but the entire society that threw him up, like some rotten prawn that it swallowed, was poisoned by, but never wanted to digest.

Any portrayal of Hitler that shows him only as an evil dictator in caricature fashion tends to trivialise the reality. Ironically, it is the fact the he was just an ordinary man – very ordinary, judging by his modest abilities and his military failure – who had just one ability: to whip up hate in an isolationist Germany against the ‘other’ as personified by Jews.

As Hirschbiegel points out, The Germans “set him up there on this strange pedestal, making him a myth: this evil creature derived from hell.” It’s a way of blocking him out of their reality.

Speaking of Hitler and his command, Hirschbiegel says he depicts them “as human beings and I don’t judge. I don’t lecture the audience.” It makes for chilling viewing. But perhaps the most chilling aspect is highlighted by what lies behind Hirschbiegel’s motivation for taking on the film, after two years of intense prevarication. As if to prove him right, newspaper reports during the Berlin film festival where Downfall had its world premiere, showed neo-Nazis parading through Dresden. 

"All that is necessary for evil to succeed in this world, is for good men to do nothing"

“If we realise that [Hitler and his Nazis] were human beings,” says Hirschbiegel, “we have to come to the painful realisation that evil must be in all of us and that, if we look at history, evil seems to be the most powerful force on earth.” But not unavoidably so, as Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke’s believed: “All that is necessary for evil to succeed in this world, is for good men to do nothing.”

In a terrifying reverse view to those words, Hirschbiegel quotes Bertol Brecht, translating it as; “The vagina that created [Hitler and the Nazis] is still fertile.”

Published April 21, 2005

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