Der Untergang/Downfall (2004) Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
A story of Adolf Hitler’s last days – not Hitler the ecstatic speaker who beguiled millions, but Hitler the prisoner who confined himself to his bunker for his final days.
Hitler (Bruno Ganz). He is the center of the movie and a binding element for all characters around him. Hirschbiegel presents many faces of the dictator. First, Hitler the military leader and a brilliant strategist. In his own view, Hitler sees himself as a genius. He realizes he conquered all Europe alone. He’s also set high standards for himself and his generals and closest employees. He judges them by his own measure. He admits he cannot afford any empathy for no one; only the strongest will survive. It becomes almost an irony since his defeat leads him to suicide – he’s not the survivor. Second, Hitler the madman. He is obsessed with winning, and values loyalty the highest. He believes everyone should sacrifice for the cause. He refuses to evacuate Berlin as if he wanted to force people into giving up their lives just as he is ready to do. The superb portrayal by Bruno Ganz helps significantly to shape Hitler as a man who loses touch with reality. He refuses to take council and begins to make tragic military decisions. Even his mood changes constantly from a disturbingly peaceful to eruptive and maniacal. Ganz’s gestures and maneuvers are far from acted out – he approaches them as a part of his character we should believe in. Hence, he makes them natural instead of caricaturizing or imitating Hitler.
Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). Innocent and doe-eyed, she is Hitler’s counterpoint. She wins the hearts of the audience, being a young, pretty and smart assistant in the last days of Hitler. She is the only character we may identify with. Even her pretty face brings relief from the cruel and stern faces of the SS officers. She serves also as an opposition to other female characters: Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), who at times seems more crazy than Hitler himself with her “let’s party all night till we die” attitude, and Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), whose blind faith in the Führer pushes her to poison her own children and commit suicide only because she doesn’t see any future for them after Hitler’s death. Interestingly, while she is murdering her children with an emotionless look on her face, her husband, Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), one of Hitler’s closest and most loyal officers, cannot bring himself to do that – he stands outside the door, waiting for her to finish. This single scene is both shocking and moving: no words are spoken while a mother murders her six children. Coming back to Traudl, her first meeting with Hitler becomes our first meeting with him. When she’s introduced to him, she feels intimidated (an officer explains how to address him, not to say until spoken to). Then, through her eyes, Hitler becomes a real person for us instead of being a boogeyman. In a way, we get used to him as Traudl familiarizes him. She observes him in different situations either fiercely reprimanding his officers, or sweetly talking to his dog. He also treats her like a father and she offers her devotions in exchange. We don’t have to approve her devotion, but we adopt her point of view because it brings us as close as it gets to Hitler in his last days.
One of the advantages of this production is how successfully it avoids sentimentalism. The filmmakers don’t need to remind us of millions of Jews killed in concentration camps, or entire European cities destroyed by the Nazis. They don’t focus on the victims, but the oppressors. What’s more, they avoid being judgmental, to a certain extent, of course. The Nazi crimes are never to be doubted, but here the creators emphasize the human aspect of the figures contemporary audience knows from history books. Besides, the movie avoids touching upon the most obvious subject: Hitler’s ideology. His views and believes are mentioned a few times, but they don’t dominate the story. Instead, the human aspect is important, and getting to the bottom of people’s actions. Hitler realizes his downfall and begins planning his own suicide as if he was planning another air raid. At the same time, it’s dramatic for his officers, many of whom follow his example and kill themselves. Hirschbiegel adds scenes where women bring an emotional contrast to Hitler’s stern attitude. They wail and beg him not to commit suicide, expressing in extreme emotions what other men, his officers, express in mere words. Even the exact moment of Hitler’s death is stripped from sentimentalism. The intensity is almost tangible, we know when it happens, we hear the shot, later we see the blood, but we never see it happen, or even see his body. The filmmakers don’t give us a chance to pity him; they leave it for Traudl.
Downfall is an extraordinary movie. It is a war movie that showcases the fight that is in people, their internal struggles, rather that the fight in the streets of Berlin. It presents the most feared and hated names in the modern history, downgrading them to real people who also feel fear and hate rather than creating them as mythical monsters. For most of the time, the filmmakers deftly avoid sentimentalism – we aren’t convinced even when children call Hitler Uncle Hitler. Yet, they unnecessarily add a sort of title cards at the end, explaining the most important dates and the number of Jews killed during the WWII. I believe it spoils the final effect since I don’t see the point. Do the creators have to add those well-known facts in case somebody in the audience didn’t do their history homework? Or in case we doubted in the message of the movie that Hitler and the SS were monsters, undeserving of any sympathy or pity? After all, they show us a piece of interview with elderly Traudl Junge, who confesses there can never be any excuse for what she did. She says being young is no excuse, and puts herself in contrast to Sophie Scholl. Her words stay in our mind as the final comment, and almost a warning for the future generations. It’s all the message we need.
Long days, pleasant nights,