My best friends didn’t want to see any movies highlighting Nazis, so I went off alone to watch Downfall at one of our art theaters. It wasn’t an easy decision for me to go.
Just as I dreaded, the main accomplishment of this technically excellent film is to humanize the top Nazis during their final days. My comic-book conceptions of Adolf Hitler, Dr. Goebbels, and the others, was going to have to edge over toward the possibility that even these monsters may have had human qualities.
Der Fuhrer was one of those talkative vegetarians who likes to spread the non-carnivore gospel. He was fond of his dog. Eva Braun didn’t like the dog so much, but was insanely loyal to his (and her) master. Dr. Goebbels was very proud of his brood of children and they, in turn, were extremely fond of their “Uncle Hitler.” Mrs Goebbels, probably the most striking of the supporting characters in the film and one of the most striking in all movie history, also seemed to love her charming children, but not as much as she loved National Socialism.
It isn’t that Downfall spares the Nazi characters the judgments of history. They are depicted as the lowest people imaginable. They continue their maniacal devotion to abstract and racist theories up to, during, and after their bloody suicides. Their disdain for the rest of the human race, including Germans being slaughtered in Berlin, is clearly shown in their actions and in the movie’s incredibly concise and bitter dialogue. And yet, they were human, and that revelation has great implications for us in our time.
During all of my lifetime, Adolf Hitler and the top characters of the Nazi Party have been incessantly portrayed as one-dimensional, insane demons who came to power by a fluke and killed millions with their unexplainable, supernatural, evil drives. If they were actually real people, as Downfall clearly shows us they were, then we have to look elsewhere to understand what caused World War II and the Holocaust. In 2005, we need to understand 1945. We need to cast aside the stereotypes of Nazism and understand what happened then and may happen now.
The story, taken from the autobiographies of minor characters who shared the bunker with Hitler during his last few days, has been told in movie and TV versions before, but never nearly so well. As a war movie, Downfall is as good as it gets. As a skillful drama, it succeeds wonderfully. As a historical depiction, it rings with truth. Downfall uses little on-screen sex and violence, though much of the resulting carnage is shown. It’s only in the plain dialogue and the written afterword that the true horrors of Hitlerism are revealed. The real-live central character, Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, is shown in a short interview at the end of the movie. She summarizes the feelings of the audience: she saw it all; she couldn’t cope with believing it, even now.
The next day, while I was still trying to absorb this difficult movie, I noted in the Dallas newspaper that George W. Bush had issued a dispensation to the CIA that would allow them another two years before they have to reveal information about the Nazis they hired and used for American service at the end of World War II. I remembered other Nazi movies I had seen. The old standard ending gave audiences relief, relief that those old, unbelievably horrible, days are over for all time and could never return under any circumstances. Would that it were so.
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Juliane Kohler, Bruno Gans, and others. Released February 2005. In German with English subtitles.