Now here’s a heavy subject, just about the heaviest featured on the site in a while. I couldn’t pass by this historical drama review series without bringing up the German film Der Untergang, or Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. I saw this in the theater when it aired in 2004 and remembered being extremely impressed by the whole film: the acting, atmosphere, everything seemed perfectly done. I rewatched it not long ago, so I can report to you on whether I think it held up.
Downfall is set in Berlin in April and May of 1945. If you know your history, you’ll know this wasn’t a great time for the city. After over five years of constant war throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, a war that at least in Europe was sparked by the aggression of the Nazi government based in Berlin, the German capital was finally having that war brought home. The film recounts many of the important events of this brief period, mostly surrounding the political situation — while some of the action takes place in the streets in the thick of the Battle of Berlin, more of it occurs in the Führerbunker, Hitler’s underground hideout in the center of the city’s government district.
This focus makes sense, since the story itself is based largely on two primary accounts, the memoirs of Nazi architect and minister of armaments Albert Speer and Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Junge, both present in the bunker and around Hitler just before and in Junge’s case after his suicide. Both survived long past the war, with Speer living until 1981 after serving twenty years for his crimes at Spandau Prison. Both were also apparently very open about the monstrous nature of the regime, and if Downfall is any indication of the personally monstrous nature of Adolf Hitler as well.*
Not that Hitler needs any introduction. He’s one of the few guys in history whose name is automatically used to mean massive, unimaginable evil. One of the most impressive aspects of Downfall then is how it humanizes the dictator while not pretending he was anything other than horrifically twisted and evil. Famous German actor Bruno Ganz plays Hitler and does an amazing job at transforming into the man, and the version of him by the end of the war suffering from nervous ailments that left him a shaking mess.
This “humanization” again shouldn’t be mistaken for sympathy. I think people do a real disservice to history and to all the people who suffered through the war and its crimes and persecutions by treating Hitler like a sort of storybook monster or demon instead of what he was: a man. Again, a twisted and evil man, but I think people sometimes want to brush over the obvious fact that Hitler was a man out of a belief that no human could really be so evil (and the same goes for his nemesis Stalin, or for any other murderous and oppressive dictator.) Downfall forces us to look at the man as he was, at least according to the accounts of two people very close to him in different ways.
The other aspects of the film are also excellent. Downfall isn’t just a recitation of events but tells several stories revolving around the central character of Hitler and the regime built upon him and that would die with him. Many of the events in the bunker are shocking enough, with Hitler’s lieutenants and functionaries and his long-time girlfriend Eva Braun doing their best to cope with their imminent deaths or arrests. Downfall starts with a brief prologue in 1942 in East Prussia, right around Germany’s period of greatest territorial gain and before it started getting rolled back, but the main part of the story begins around Hitler’s final birthday on April 20, 1945. Despite the Soviet Red Army rolling in and shelling Berlin to hell, Braun and the remaining inner circle still hold a small party in his honor while the man himself is holed up in his office.
Meanwhile on the streets above, Berlin is being treated as a “front city”, and with Hitler’s remaining regular forces tied up fighting off the Soviet wave, the city’s children and old men are pressed into service carrying out street-to-street battles. Much of the early part of Downfall is centered on the impossibility of the Nazi regime’s survival contrasted with Hitler’s delusional hopes that it can stand — that one of his generals will coordinate an attack that somehow throws the Soviets out of the city and back to the east. Even after his hopes are dashed, however, he has no mercy for his own people and refuses to surrender, instead planning out his own suicide and the transfer of his powers to his remaining highest loyal officer, the infamous propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
If you were around on YouTube ten years ago or so, you’ve probably seen one of the hundreds of parodies of the above scene (or of the Fegelein scene) in which Hitler rants about being banned from XBox Live or a furry convention or whatever he happens to be angry about that day. Even though Bruno Ganz wasn’t a big fan of these parodies from what I’ve heard, and I completely understand that, it might be a testament to just how immersive this film is that people loved these scenes enough to use them for purposes totally unrelated to World War II. There’s something fascinating to me about watching a world crumble like the Nazis’ world does in Downfall, even if that downfall was truly deserved and far too long in coming. Even in this world, with some of its well-deserved deaths, there’s some true tragedy — see the fates of the Goebbels’ young children at the hands of their own parents.
Then there are the civilians of Berlin. It’s an interesting point that might not be obvious just from watching this film, but Hitler by all accounts disliked Berlin. He made his real home in Bavaria after leaving his native Austria and even makes a point of hiring Traudl Junge in the film’s first scene because she’s from Munich. Berlin by contrast was long resistant to him, a center of “decadent art” and of democratic and left-wing politics during the Weimar Republic era before the Nazis rubbed out all non-underground opposition in 1933-34. Hitler’s ultimate plan for the capital was its complete rebuilding into a neo-classical monster called Germania, the plans for which we see in an early scene still above ground between Hitler and Speer.
Considering all that, it might make more sense why Hitler was so willing to sacrifice Berlin, even if he did stay in the capital himself to die. Or maybe not — maybe Hitler would have just as readily sacrificed any people around him to hang on for another day before ending his life. I’m not a historian, but it’s an interesting question. All Germans in any case, whether they’d voted for the Nazis when Germany still had free elections or not, and whether they supported Hitler’s violent policies against the Jews and others he considered undesirables or not, fell into the hands of the Allies after the war ended, experiencing various fates depending on whose hands they were in (i.e. hopefully not the Soviets’, though considering how Germany treated the Russians and allied nations on the eastern front, some brutality in return had to be expected.)
To me, that’s just another mark of the evil of Hitler and his top officials, that in the end they didn’t even give a damn for their own people’s lives. One of the mitigating facts that saved the high Nazi official Speer from the death penalty or a life sentence when he went on trial in Nuremberg in 1946 was his sabotage of destructive orders as Germany lost the war that would have caused further suffering. I don’t think you can call any single person in Hitler’s inner circle anything near a “good” person, but there are different degrees of amorality and evil, or at least enough that the court at Nuremberg recognized a difference between them.**
Whether such matters of honor made a difference to the millions of already dead victims is a different question, but that question doesn’t go ignored in Downfall even if it’s not directly addressed by it, with Goebbels declaring to Junge his continued belief that it was all the Jews’ fault, everything. Nothing like blaming your victims for your own destruction.
So it’s a heavy post today, but I do recommend Downfall to anyone interested in the time period. I just wish we had more works set in Weimar-era Germany — now that was an interesting time, and also a tragic one considering how unstable it was and how the fragile interwar German democracy was brought down from the inside. Not a bad lesson for the future, either.
* Important to note here that Speer has been accused of fabricating parts of his memoirs to clean up his own reputation and image. As far as I’ve heard, the parts of Downfall based on his memoirs are pretty much accurate, however — there would have been enough people also involved who survived, like Junge, to corroborate those parts of the story.
** From a legal standpoint, the Nuremberg trials are also fascinating. I’ve heard arguments that they were illegitimate because they applied human rights principles retroactively, or ex post facto in legal jargon, to the Nazi defendants. However, there’s plenty of argument to make that the Nazis were well aware of the horrific nature of their crimes to the extent that the “superior orders” defense shouldn’t have been sufficient to save them — see all the way back to the 15th century and the trial of Peter von Hagenbach. Was Nuremberg victors’ justice? There might have been some of that involved, but the extraordinary nature of the crimes committed demanded this response. That’s my argument, anyway, and it’s not an especially brave or out-there stance to take.