Wednesday, March 12, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Downfall (2004)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara
Downfall tells the story of the last days of the Third Reich as seen through the eyes of Hitler’s secretary. This is a chaotic, brutal film that shows the depths of fanaticism, fear in the face of inevitable loss, regret, and hints of seeds being sown for the post-war “no one knew” mythology of Germany. It is rare to see a World War II film from the perspective of the Nazi side, and it’s that flipping of perspective which makes this film so powerful.
The Hitler we see here (Bruno Ganz) is a broken, sickly man who can’t bring himself to accept that he’s losing the war. Briefly, at the beginning of the film, we see the pre-war Hitler, a dynamic figure on whom people look reverentially; but for most of the film we see a version of Hitler who is slowly going mad, moving army units that no longer exist, screaming orders that would be pointless to follow, and eventually coming to terms with his failure. Downfall is an important film not because it shows Hitler’s final days, but because of the way it shows Hitler himself and the people who followed him. The world is done a disservice when we think of Hitler as something other than human, a madman without compare. In the decades since his rise and fall, many others have emulated his politics of hatred and destruction, with the difference that they’ve kept it to their own backyards rather than attempting to spread it across a continent. Hitler was a human being. So was Stalin and Pol Pot and Slobodan Milosevic. Classifying them as anything else teaches us nothing. We also learn nothing when we ignore the fact that Hitler was a leader that many people liked and believed in, at least at first. Certainly, not everyone agreed with his racial politics, but people did like that he got Germans working again, creating new industries and new jobs – industries and jobs which, in hindsight, necessitated a war in order to sustain them. When Traudl (Alexandra Maria Lara) looks at Hitler in the film, even during the final days in the bunker, it’s largely with respect, perhaps a little with fear. She doesn’t see him as a raving madman, but as a leader, a man who loves his dogs, a man she would perhaps die for (there does come a point where she doesn’t have to stay in that bunker in Berlin). And it’s important to see this side of things.
This isn’t just about Hitler, but about the Third Reich and Germany in general. We see Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife (Corinna Harfouch), who kill their children and eventually themselves in the last days. “I don’t want to live in a world without National Socialism,” she says. In some ways they are shown as more fanatical even than Hitler, because their belief is in the Party, whereas Hitler’s belief is mostly in himself. We also encounter Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), who post-war would save himself from death by claiming to have never known about the death camps. This was a common refrain throughout Germany after the war and, while it’s likely that some people didn’t know, it’s also likely that given how many camps there were, how many trains were passing through towns to the camps, and the fact that sometimes prisoners from the camps would be sent out on a work detail to, say, repair a city street, that a distinction is being made between “knowledge” and “knowledge” – as in, some people were aware of the existence of camps, but hadn’t seen what went on there, and since seeing is believing, washed their hands of it. The last moments of the film center on this idea of knowing without knowing through footage of an interview with the real Traudl Junge, who admits to perhaps excusing herself for her ignorance because of her age and gender. She then tells us of the realization that Sophie Schull, a resistance worker known as the “White Rose,” was the same age as her and was executed in the same year that she began working for Hitler. “A young age isn’t an excuse. It might have been possible to get to know things.”
The film takes place largely inside Hitler’s bunker, but the scenes which take place outside, in the crumbling Berlin, are just as powerful and even more brutal. We see children fighting, and dying, as soldiers, men being hanged for “betraying” the Reich, and all means of random, senseless violence. The war portion of the film ends with the Russians moving into the city. This is an especially tense moment when seen through Traudl’s eyes, because one of the last places you wanted to be if you were a woman was Berlin when the Russians came in, especially if you were working directly for the Reich. Traudl emerges from the bunker and is able to pass by the Russians unscathed and the film returns to the interview footage with which it opened. As powerful as the film has been up to this point, nothing compares to these last moments with the real Traudl. We see an old woman still trying to come to grips with the things she did and didn’t do, and with her final words we realize that she isn’t just speaking about herself and the Third Reich, but about the world and all the people who inhabit it, because ignorance is not the same thing as innocence and passive collaboration is collaboration nonetheless.