Film — Downfall (R)

Downfall (R)

by Amy Diaz

There’s no springtime for Hitler in Downfall, the tale of April 1945 in Germany and the last days of the Third Reich.

Ah, Nazis. Have there ever been a more hateable group? There is no nuance, no final redemption that makes you feel conflicted about their ultimate total defeat. They were a maniacal, homicidal bunch of loons from start to finish that ultimately all deserved worse than the quick deaths most of them received. What perhaps becomes clear in the nearly three-hour, at times TV-movie-ish Downfall is that the strain of crazy ran deep in German culture and that, try as some did post war to attempt to differentiate “Germans” from “Nazis” they were all a messed-up, suicidal group.

Take for example the many times in Downfall when a German woman would burst into tears or some equally dramatic sign of adoration at the sight of Adolf Hitler. Delusional to an extraordinary degree, Hitler nonetheless commanded an almost religious-like devotion until, and even past, the end of his life.

Amazing as this is to anyone who knows even just the broad outline of the Nazis’ reign over Europe, this fanaticism seems even more unlikely when you see the Hitler (Bruno Ganz) that skulks through most of this movie’s scenes. This Hitler, nearly entombed in his massive bunker underneath the chancellory, is a shaking physical wreck who obsesses over maps attempting to rearrange his armies so they can best overcome the Soviet army which is at his city’s gates. Except, of course, there are no armies to rearrange and nothing can stop the oncoming Red Army. He yells at generals who seem too frightened — both of the man they used to revere and of his ever-deepening dementia — telling them that they, that the German people, that the other generals have all failed him and that he would not have lost the war had it not been for their treachery. Yet after these waves of rage crash, he returns to this ever-more-fantastic belief that he can still win the war. This delusion is so deep that he refuses to surrender Berlin and orders a policy of burning fields, bridges and other German infrastructure as they retreat, leaving nothing for the advancing army.

In the bunker, the nearing defeat seems to heighten devotion to the lost cause of Nazism. Joseph (Ulrich Matthes) and Magda (Corinna Hafouch) Goebbels move into the bunker with their many children, ultimately killing the children and themselves before the Soviet Army arrives. So completely fanatical is Magda that she places her love of National Socialism above the primal fight for the survival of her children. Other Wermacht and SS officers declare that they will never surrender and will fight until the end, saving only the last bullet to kill themselves. Only a few of the many people who flow into and out of the bunker do as Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) does, which is to try and figure out how best to surrender to Eisenhower. (You get the sense that part of this fatalism in the face of defeat comes from the deep, deep fear of winding up a Nazi muckity-muck in the hands of the Soviets.)

Into this apocalyptic atmosphere, we see two faces of relative normalcy — the young naivete of Traudl Junge (Alexandria Maria Lara), Hitler’s secretary, and the increasing horror of the SS doctor Prof. Schenck (Christian Berkel), a doctor who sees the awful toll the Red Army is having on the soldiers. These two characters draw us into the Berlin inside (Traudl) and outside (Schenck) the bunker. The fatalism of the bunker has translated into senseless cruelty outside, with the German army shooting elderly German citizens, claiming that they are deserters, and conscripting children barely big enough to hold a gun into manning the front lines.

I can see how the use of these two characters as entry points could lead some to believe that we feel sympathy for them. I must say, I do not. I don’t think the movie ever lets either off the hook for being what they were — a party to evil. At the end of the movie, we get a film clip of the real Traudl, late in life, saying that she has since felt the weight of her own guilt, though perhaps not as thoroughly as we would have liked.

We stand now exactly 60 years away from the events of this movie (I write this review on April 30, the day in 1945 when Hitler and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide) but nothing in Downfall makes the more-than-a-dozen-year illness of the German people any more understandable. What the film does do is give us a chilling example of what people are capable of when they give over all thought and reason to fanaticism and how that ideological zeal can rule their actions even after their goals have become unattainable.

- Amy Diaz

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