Friday, January 2, 2009


When this movie was first released, there was a fear that perhaps it might humanize Hitler, and maybe even make him a sympathetic character. I've never understood why humanizing Hitler might be a bad thing. He was, after all, human, and a charismatic and charming one at that. To forget that, and remember in him hindsight for only his evil acts, is in essence a way of protecting ourselves. We would have objected, we would have tried to stop him, a Hitler could not rise to power in our country. But that would be lying to ourselves. The German people at the time were deceived, convinced that doing things so reprehensible and evil was the right thing, so who is to say that we would be any different in a similar situation? Perhaps the benefit of hindsight might help, but we still must remind ourselves that Hitler was human as we are, the German people were human, and that we must be continually vigilant in order to ensure that we don't forget this, and believe such a thing could never happen again.

So, yes, Bruno Ganz' performance as Hitler does humanize him. It gets past the carefully planned public persona and attempts to show the more private side of him, and manages to paint a complete picture of Hitler, the man, as opposed to Hitler, history's monster. But it's important to note that it never actually makes him a sympathetic character. Yes, he's seen as tender at times, but he's also depicted as angry, selfish, and ultimately a coward. He never accepts his own failings, or that he might have been at least partially responsible for Germany losing the war. The most famous speeches in the film have him angrily lashing out at the people of the Germany for failing him, rather than the other - and more accurate - way around. He keeps himself increasingly distant from the reality at hand, commanding armies that have been destroyed and continuing to make plans long after its clear that they're going to lose. And when he realizes that it's the end, he would rather kill himself than face his mistakes.

It should be noted that the movie is mostly about how people react to failure on a grand scale. With the Nazis, you have a sense that they realize not only that they're going to lose the war, but that they can't simply go back to being another country in the world. The Holocaust is only ever mentioned in passing, but it hangs over the proceedings anyway. There is a lot of suicide when people realize that the end of the war is near, and that they're not going to win. Some of this can be explained by people just not wanting to admit to defeat, or a fear of what the enemy will do to them, but with more than a few characters you know that they also realize how they'll be regarded after the Nazis are gone.

A key sequence is how Goebbels' wife kills her children so they don't have to face a world after the Nazis are gone. She seems to regard it as an act of love, but the reaction immediately after when she sits down to play solitaire, and stares at her husband says something more. Her face seems to say "you did this to us", and he looks to be more defeated than ever. You get a sense that she knows how the children of a high ranking Nazi official will be regarded, and blames her husband for getting them involved.

The film is framed by footage of one of Hitler's secretaries - a central character and the author of one of the sources on which the film was based - in her later years, expressing her deep regret for being involved with him and not knowing better. She says she would like to blame youth and naivety, but knows better, and knows women her own age were protesting. The sequences serve to explain many of the motivations and really the entire film. It's about guilt, both of individuals and the country at large, and how people dealt with it starting when the empire fell. In the end, it's a movie that could have been only possible with a German director and a German cast, as they are the ones with the guilt running through their veins. It was also a film that had to be made, in order to come to grips with a past so horrible that it's hard to admit an association with.

It's important to learn about the Nazis not because of the great tragedy they oversaw, but because we need to see how someone could have managed to convince a country to commit acts which it had to know were wrong, and how they convinced themselves to do them anyway. We need to learn about the Holocaust not because so many people died, but because we need to see the flaws in ourselves which allowed them to. Downfall is important mostly in the piece of the puzzle which it depicts.

Screen taken at 22:50

1 comment:

  1. Wow man, that's an awesome entry! As a History enthusiast, I have always been fascinated with the development and disintegration of the Nazi party, so this would definitely be a film I want to see.

    It really is crazy how good Hitler was at stirring up emotions, though. Watching footage of him during speeches, etc., is spell-binding!