There has always been a great deal of idle speculation about what it is that people find so fascinating about Hitler’s Germany. My favorite theory–which hardly makes it correct–is that people want to understand what allows people to do such depraved things to each other. That people probe the Holocaust looking for ways that we can assure that such a thing never happens again.
For those seeking to viscerally understand the nuances of Nazi ideology and the causes of mass adherence to the doctrine of National Socialism, Downfall isn’t really for you. Downfall, an immaculate recreation of the tense final days inside Hitler’s Berlin bunker, is much more about the paternal role an ailing and potentially insane Fuhrer played in the lives of those who knew him most intimately. How these people reacted as the Reich crumbled, how they reacted to his suicide, how they surrendered to the Soviet forces.
Downfall made me feel more sympathetically toward Hitler than I ever thought I could, but it would be absolutely unfair and inaccurate to say that it is itself sympathetic. The film’s aim–at which is succeeds brilliantly–is to show the discomfort and weariness of the Reich’s powerful as their empire and dreams crumbled around them.
In doing so, in getting so close to these people for so long (the movie is 153 minutes), you can’t help but feel for them. Whether or not you’re convinced they’re good and friendly people, you have to recognize the unavoidable humanity of the characters being portrayed. Even Joseph and Magda Goebbels, who kill their six young children and then each other, drive home the unavoidable truth that even Nazis had feelings, even they suffered, even those who spent much of their lives trying to ignore and avoid such “weakness.”
Downfall is based on the account of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secratary from 1942 to 1945. The movie opens with the scene of Fraulein Junge’s interview for the position, in which we see a gentle and forgiving Hitler (played brilliantly by Bruno Ganz) who makes absolutely clear that this is different than the traditional caricatures of the man and his empire.
Some have critiqued Downfall for being nostalgic for the Germany that died with Hitler. I feel confident in saying that such ideas are both incorrect and insulting. The film does indeed encourage the watcher to sympathize with the followers who submitted to the myth of Hitler and found themselves completely lost when the grand plan for domination finally failed. But presenting these confused people humanely is hardly the same as presenting them as heroes.
So too has presenting Hitler as a person, rather than a caricature, gained the film some hostility. Here too I think it’s grossly unfair to argue that such a characterization is in any way a glorification. History and people find it convenient to see the mass-murders of recent history–Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and sometimes Slobodan Milosovic–as some other, some un-human. This simple separation and banishment is convenient, but its convenience is principally derived from its gross oversimplification of reality. As Dowfall‘s director, Oliver Hirshbiegel, said:
It is unbelievable that he could manipulate all these people. He only succeeded because he was a human being, and that’s why we have to show this. To show him as a human being. Everything else would be fatal. And it would be a historical mistake.
Downfall fascinating and compelling power comes precisely from the fact that it humanizes Hitler and his closest and most well-known co-conspirators. It allows that these people were human, whether they themselves knew or liked that fact, and had human feelings. Downfall‘s success is clearly illustrated be the controversy that has bubbled around it. Though I think its detractors have overstated the case, they are correct in seeing that humanizing history’s most notorious villains is an unsavory and sensitive business. But Downfall does it better than any film I’ve seen.