In the riveting 2002 documentary Blind Spot:
Hitler’s Secretary, octogenarian Traudl Junge — who took purple-prosed
dictation from the Führer for two and a half years and typed his last testament
in the Berlin bunker — spilled her guts about what it was like to work for “that
lovely old gentleman” in his final days, and examined her own myopia about the
catastrophe unfolding outside the hermetically sealed world she had shared with
her boss. Her ambivalent yet heartfelt mea culpa, plainly the outcome of an exhausting
inner struggle over 60 years of self-imposed silence, made enthralling, if excruciating
viewing. It also posed an implicit challenge to the German people to re-examine
their own passivity in the face of the Third Reich.
The new Oscar-nominated German docudrama Downfall, which is based in part on Junge’s account and uses her as an awkward framing device, is clearly designed to bring her cerebral portrait of Hitler’s last days to a broader audience. (Four-hundred, eighty-thousand Germans flocked to Downfall on its opening weekend.) But unlike the documentary, it challenges nothing, which may be why it leaped to number one at the box office and got two thumbs up from Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Still, the movie generated much heated punditry in the press. European critics were sharply divided, with some detractors raising the usual objections to the movie’s perceived efforts to portray Hitler as a human being. (No doubt many Jewish-American leaders will raise the same objections in the coming weeks.) But what makes Hitler so appalling is precisely that he was human, indeed that he expanded the human capacity for evil in both quantity and quality. The crucial question is not how he did what he did, which has been documented all too well in an avalanche of Holocaust-related documentaries, but why. Yet like so many films whose subject touches on the Holocaust (even Roman Polanski, in The Pianist, kept his head respectfully close to the ground of events), Downfall assiduously shuns fresh interpretation, as if an imaginative or non-realist reading were somehow unholy or off-limits. The price paid for such humility, however understandable given the enormity and touchiness of the subject, is that no new ground gets broken. Downfall’s director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, comes out of television, and the movie, which clocks in at 155 slavishly detailed minutes, has the plodding, episodic feel of a miniseries. The action moves methodically between the stifling claustrophobia of the bunker, with its baroque opulence and fragile, delusional orderliness, and the fiery streets of Berlin, a hellhole of suffering civilians who, far from being protected by soldiers, are hounded by roaming SS thugs out to lynch or shoot “collaborators” with the advancing Russian armies. Through the wide eyes of Traudl Junge, portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara as an amiable ingénue, we see an all-too-familiar schizoid Hitler. Tricked out in toothbrush mustache, pasty-face makeup and a greasy black comb-over, his fingers twitching ostentatiously behind his stooped back, Bruno Ganz gives a performance so over the top, and at the same time so much a retread of every well-known image or idea of the Führer, it flirts with parody. Mercifully, the undescended-testicle hypothesis didn’t make the cut. Instead, we get the courtly gentleman who’s kind to dogs, children and the adoring women who surround him, alternating with the paranoid and deluded hysteric, swinging wildly between grandiose speeches and depressive resignation — here the faddist vegetarian fussing over the gadgetry of suicide, there the devotion to abstract ideals coupled with the callousness toward actual people. None of this is far-fetched, but the composite representation is so absurd the mind flies inescapably to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, or to Monty Python and John Cleese’s Mr. Hilter yelling “Death to the Jews!” while an admiring crowd murmurs, “He’s right, you know.”
Downfall is marginally more interesting as a study in the fanatical loyalty
Hitler inspired in those who served him, and that largely because of some powerful
ensemble acting by those who play his inner circle. Juliane Köhler (Nowhere in
Africa) is terrific as Eva Braun, born to fiddle while Rome burns,
her glittering eyes ablaze with feverish gaiety as she eggs on the increasingly
unhinged bacchanal in the bunker’s great hall, and busies herself bequeathing
her pricey wardrobe to others as if making such lists were the crucial business
at hand. But compelling as Köhler’s performance may be, taken together with Ganz’s
strutting overkill it seems to suggest that Hitler and his acolytes were no more
than a bunch of nutters.
Beyond a couple of anti-Semitic outbursts by Hitler, the Jews don’t get much of a look-in, except in a brief last-minute intertitle about the six million who died in the camps. Much is made of his unwillingness to allow the six Goebbels children, who called him Uncle Hitler, to leave the bunker, and of their parents (played with chilling pomp and circumstance by Corinna Harfouch and Ulrich Matthes) methodically poisoning their little Aryans with cyanide — Hirschbiegel is as obsessed as Hitler was with the gadgetry of death — then committing suicide themselves in stony silence. If the movie has a message, it is that at the end Hitler abandoned not only his generals (many of whom, like Himmler and Speer, returned the favor) but the entire German people, excoriating them for cowardice as surrender to the Allied Forces became inevitable.
It’s hard to imagine German audiences coming out of
Downfall gasping, “Hitler, what a bastard . . . who knew?” The movie, after
all, is an integral part of Germany’s long, tortured effort since the 1960s to
come to grips with its ghastly past, and cinematic depictions of Hitler’s last
days reach as far back as G.W. Pabst’s 1955 Der Letzter Akt,
whose impact must have been far more dramatic for having been made during
a near-total blackout in the German collective memory. Indeed, Hirschbiegel’s
doggedly detail-driven movie may end up adding to modern Germany’s Holocaust fatigue.
Lutz Hachmeister, director of a new documentary about Goebbels, recently announced
that “For me as a historian, the Hitler subject is finished. Every aspect of Hitler
has been shown.” That’s as may be, but Downfall, while not softening Hitler’s
character (his legendary good manners are firmly dismissed here as icing on a
monstrous cake), suffers from crucial failures of nerve. There are the obligatory
“good Nazis,” two doctors, greatly cleaned up from their real-life counterparts,
who serve as voices of humanism and protest. And whether or not Eva Braun really
did muster enough empathy to urge Traudl Junge to flee the bunker, the movie’s
truly dippy ending has Junge charging heroically through the Russian ranks, her
hand grasping that of a wised-up blond prettyboy from the Hitler Youth. Then we
see the smiling pair cycling through a countryside bathed in warm sunlight.
Toward what — a better tomorrow? Not according to the real Junge, who, in a soundbite lifted from Blind Spot, tells her interlocutor that only after years of denial and depression did she face up to her failures of omission, while walking past a statue erected to the memory of Sophie Scholl, the young resistance fighter exactly her own age who was executed by the Nazis for leafleting against the Reich. Blind Spot threw down a challenge to all Germans, to ask themselves what they would have done in Junge’s place. Downfall gives us the facts, then tiptoes quietly away.
DOWNFALL | Directed by OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL | Written by BERND EICHINGER,
based on the books Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest
and Until the Final Hour by Traudl Junge and Melissa
Müller | Produced by EICHINGER | Released by Newmarket Films | At the ArcLight,
Fine Arts and Royal theaters
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