The Downfall


Posted to on February 16, 2005


A film depicting Adolf Hitler's human side is attracting crowds and stirring debate in Germany.


Oliver Hirschbiegel's film Der Untergang (The Downfall) portrays the final days of the fuehrer's life in his Berlin bunker in 1945. Released in September, it has become one of the best-selling films in Germany, with 400 copies in circulation and attendance of more than 750,000. It has also stirred debate.


On Nov. 18, the film received Hamburg's Bambi prize as the best German film of the year. Former chancellor Helmut Kohl handed the award to Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler. Der Untergang has also been nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film.


At the core of the controversy surrounding the film is its portrayal of Hitler as a human being, rather than a monster. While Berlin falls in an apocalyptic bloodbath outside his bunker's walls, the dictator is seen eating pasta, praising his cook, charming his secretary, patting his dog, crying and kissing Eva Braun. Should this be permitted?


German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki praised Der Untergang on the television talk show Berlin Mitte as "important, significant and very well made," and suggested that it ought to be shown in all German schools. Film director Wim Wenders, in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, condemned the film as a trivialization of history. It didn't take a stance on Hitler or fascism and encouraged the viewer to sympathize with the dictator, he said.


Adding to the controversy, right-wing extremist Karl Richter revealed last month in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that he and as many as 20 other neo-Nazis had acted in the film as SS officers, Wehrmacht soldiers and members of the bunker's inner circle. Richter, chief editor of a monthly far-right publication, lauded the film as the beginning of a shift in the historical perception of Hitler.


(Montreal Gazette, November 26, 2004)



"The Downfall" opens this week in New York City. As might be expected, critics are more concerned with the film as film rather than with its deeper implications about German politics and history. This review will have something to say about the former, but concentrate on the latter.


Unquestionably, "The Downfall" is a very good movie. To begin with, Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is one of the more spellbinding performances in recent years. Oddly enough, it evokes Klaus Kinski's portrayal of the conquistador Aguirre in Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, Wrath of God." Although these sorts of characters are thorough villains, a good screenplay, directing and acting can command one's attention no matter how repulsive the character.


In the production notes, Ganz--who is actually Swiss--explains how he captured Hitler's voice. He eschewed the public speeches, but instead studied a one-of-a-kind seven-minute magnetic tape of Hitler chatting at a dinner party, secretly recorded by a Finnish diplomat and smuggled from Germany during the war.


Ganz's Hitler is a mercurial personality, given to maudlin acceptance of his impending doom followed rapidly by volcanic bursts of anger directed at his top officers. No matter how bleak the situation they describe to him, he responds that a counter-offensive is in the works and that Bolshevism and Jewry will be destroyed once and for all.


"The Downfall" includes all of the major figures around Hitler: Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann and General Alfred Jodl. Although none of them are portrayed in a positive light, every effort is made to humanize them. Basically, they appear as members of a kind of suicide cult. Hitler's bunker might remind one of Jonestown, if one were not aware that Hitler and his henchmen--unlike Jim Jones--were the greatest mass murderers in history.


Of a more problematic nature is the portrayal of Ernst-Gunther Schenk, a Nazi physician who runs afoul of his higher-ups who are determined to fight it out with the approaching Russian army even if it means that the civilian population of Berlin will die in vast numbers. The always useful (at least on films) World Socialist Web Site notes:


"In Downfall, the doctor Professor Schenk, through whose eyes we see the suffering of the wounded, exudes the humanitarian selflessness of a Red Cross medical orderly. In fact, Schenk had been a member of the Nazi SA since 1933 and later held senior posts in the SS and Wehrmacht. He was instrumental in installing an herb plantation in the concentration camp of Dachau. Hundreds of internees died in the course of their forced labour on the project. He used other camp prisoners as human guinea pigs for experiments in which many lost their lives. The film’s depiction of his humanitarianism has more in common with Schenk’s own memoirs than reality."


Another denizen of Hitler's bunker who remains somewhat sympathetic is Traudl Junge, the fuehrer's young and fresh-faced secretary, whom he treats like a daughter. She adores Hitler, but not on an ideological basis. This naïve woman eventually flees from the bunker on a bicycle along with a teenage boy who has decided to not risk his life fighting against the Russian troops. When you see them pedaling away on a country road, your feeling is one of relief.


The film is actually based on Junge's memoir "Until the Final Hour" and German historian Joachim Fest's "Hitler's Bunker." Junge herself was the subject of the fascinating documentary titled "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," which is available now on DVD/video. I watched it a couple of days after seeing a critic's screening of "The Downfall." Junge (now deceased) was 81 when the documentary was made and still appeared mesmerized by Hitler. While offering up obvious observations about how terrible Hitler was, she still gushes over his charisma and his tenderness toward her. The events in "The Downfall" follow her narrative pretty much to the letter. The general effect of both films is repulsion, no matter the readiness of some neo-Nazis to embrace the film as an endorsement of their goals. If anybody would decide to join a neo-Nazi movement on the basis of watching this grotesque suicide cult, then neo-Nazism surely has no future in Germany.


When you turn to the work of Joachim Fest, however, the verdict on Hitler's legacy is both less obvious and more troubling. Although not quite as prone to his colleagues' excesses, Fest belongs to the neoconservative current in German historiography that emerged in the 1980s as a reaction to what was perceived as a demonization of Hitler. Andreas Hillgruber, Ernst Nolte and others saw Nazism as evil, but not something that was exceptionally evil. They even proposed that it was a defensive, if perhaps excessive, reaction to the gulags. The "Historikerstreit" (historian's dispute) that broke out in 1986 coincided with Reagan's laying of a wreath on a Waffen SS headstone in Bitburg the year earlier. Although this was widely regarded as PR gaffe, the political imperative that drove it was essential to the final battles of the Cold War. To rally the people against Communism and to reunite the nation, Helmut Kohl understood that German nationalism must be legitimized once again. For that project to succeed, any lingering guilt about the war on Bolshevism had to be overcome.


Hillgruber's "Two Kinds of Destruction: The Shattering of the German Reich and the End of European Jewry" appeared in 1986. In a September 6th review in the NY Times, James Markham observed: "One of the book's central theses is that the partition of Germany, through the loss of its eastern territories to the Soviet Army was a war aim developed by Churchill as early as 1941. By twinning the collapse of Germany's eastern front and the Holocaust, Mr. Hillgruber implicitly invites a moral comparison between the two events."


In a 1980 lecture, Ernst Nolte justified rounding up Jews and shipping them off to concentration camps as a defensive measure. Why? It appears that Chaim Weizmann had made a statement in 1939 that, according to Nolte, argued "in this war the Jews of all the world would fight on England's side." This, Nolte says, "could lay a foundation for the thesis that Hitler would have been justified in treating the German Jews as prisoners of war [or more precisely as, as civilian internees like the Germans in England from September 1939, or U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage from 1941 to 1945] and thus interning them.


Nolte and other such "revisionists" were frequent contributors to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative daily newspaper that Joachim Fest edited. When Jurgen Habermas and other left-leaning scholars lashed out at the neoconservatives, Fest came to their defense. In the August 29, 1986 FAS, he laid out an argument that is central to the revisionist school, namely that Hitler was driven to extremes by the Russian Revolution. In other words, Nazism was a defensive although excessive measure.


Fest quotes a 1918 speech by Martyn Latsis, a Latvian Jew who was a Cheka official: "We are in the process of exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class." From this quote, Fest concludes that the Bolsheviks were determined to carry out a genocide on a class basis rather than a race basis. Since his remarks are generally not available in the original but from a version that appeared in Harrison Salisbury's "Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions, 1905-1917, we don't really know what Latsis was getting at. It is far more likely that he meant that their property had to be *liquidated* on a class basis, rather than exterminated as individuals. Of course, for the rich, this is a fate worth death.


What's missing, of course, from Fest's calculation is any engagement with Russian history. Except for measures taken against the Czar's family in order to preempt a restorationist movement, the first thing that the Bolsheviks did was abolish capital punishment. During the civil war, terror was certainly employed but it was not applied on some sort of class/income basis. If you fought with the Whites, you risked retaliation. The bourgeoisie feared the Bolsheviks not because their lives were in danger, but because their property was. German big business turned to Hitler, not because he would save them from extermination but because he would make sure that they would continue to enjoy profit-making.


In 1977, Joachim Fest got his first shot at making a Hitler film. Based on his 1976 biography of Hitler, the documentary "Hitler--A Career" played to capacity crowds. A July 23, 1977 Washington Post article expressed the same kind of reservations that have been made about "The Downfall." It states, "What makes this film dangerous, though, and this is an assessment shared by several critics, is its fixation on Hitler, a man of boundless energy, its neglect of the circumstances of his rise to power, its failure to mention some of Hitler's closest advisers like Schacht and Speer. The evil perpetrated by Hitler is given no more than a cursory glance; concentration camps--the words are mentioned once, but you don't see much of them. There are vague references to SS terror, but no visual evidence to bring home to the viewer how the Nazis, and not just Hitler, stifled all opposition, terrorizing their subjects into submission."


Indeed, such a film has probably never been made, although there is a pressing need for one given the dangerous drift of US capitalism. Such a film, fictional or non-fictional, would spell out how German big business turned to Hitler as a last resort. It would also show how Great Britain and the United States were tolerant of Nazism as long as it focused on stopping Communism. It would demonstrate how American corporations did business with Hitler, even after WWII had begun. It would also drive home the all-important political point that as long as there is private property, there will be a propensity to fascism as a final solution to the threat posed by socialist revolution. With US capitalism facing challenges from other capitalist powers and with the need to maintain an adequate profit margin, you will see continuing military adventures abroad and assaults on living standards at home. No matter how much patriotism is driven down our throat on Fox-TV and at football games, sooner or later working people will be forced to respond. In the final battles that await us in the future, it will be essential to study the lessons of Germany and avoid mistakes that were made in the past. Our survival and that of all humanity rests on that.