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A film depicting Adolf Hitler's human side is attracting crowds and stirring
Oliver Hirschbiegel's film Der Untergang (The Downfall) portrays the final days of the fuehrer's life in his
On Nov. 18, the film
At the core of the
controversy surrounding the film is its portrayal of Hitler as a human being,
rather than a monster. While
German literary critic
Marcel Reich-Ranicki praised Der
Untergang on the television talk show
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.
"The Downfall" opens this week in
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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:
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