|Posted on Tuesday, April 26, 2005 - 07:16 am: |
The scene is the outer office of a very important man, where six young stenographers
have arrived for a job interview. They are fidgety and nervous at the very idea
that they will soon be ushered into his presence. They ask the man who brought
them there how they should act. When he comes out, he proves kind and gentle,
understanding toward their nervousness and charmed by their eagerness to please
him. He brings one, a Miss Junge, into his inner office. He has a big dog, but
he tells her that it won't hurt her. He tells her to get comfortable, shows
her to the typewriter, and tells her not to worry, because he will likely make
more mistakes than she will. After a few lines, she stops typing in mid-sentence
and sits there, trembling, thinking she's failed. He comes over, looks over
her shoulder, and sees a simple typo. No wonder she's so scared! A little, understanding
smile crosses his face. "Let's give it another try."
A few minutes later she bursts out out the office and is embraced by the other
girls when she announces she has the job.
He's a kind, understanding, fatherly boss.
The kind you would like to have, if you were the young Traudl Junge.
He's also Adolf Hitler.
DOWNFALL, in german with english subtitles, is another drama of the nazi hierarchy
huddled together in Hitler's bunker, while Berlin is pounded into rubble above.
There have been several, including one with Anthony Hopkins and one with Alec
Guinness. Most were not any good. They all had an unknowable void at their center:
the Fuhrer himself, who was always portrayed as a charmless loon, his personality
utterly blank whenever he wasn't shrieking about betrayals and summary executions.
DOWNFALL takes a tack so outrageous that some critics have regarded it with
open hostility. It humanizes the Fuhrer. Without once diminishing his madness
or denying the scale of his crimes, it treats him as a man who his subordinates
could legitimately regard with respect and affection. He is just as evil when
he declares that the civilians dying in the city above deserve everything they're
receiving at the hands of the invading russians, just as crazy when he stymies
his generals by telling them to rely on nonexistent reinforcements, just as
hateful when he places all the blame for Germany's downfall on the Jews he's
happy to have cleared out of Europe, at least...but he's also, paradoxically,
loving Uncle to the Goebbels children, and the fellow who can thrill his underlings
with a sudden, unforced moment of warmth. Traudl, the secretary hired in the
first scene, finds it hard to reconcile. She confides in Eva Braun, "He's such
a kind man, but sometimes he says such brutal things." Braun smiles knowingly:
"That's when he's being the Fuhrer."
Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler, inhabits the role as few of the many before him
ever have. Ranting, he's a guy you want to be continents removed from: murderous,
racist, filled with hate, contemptuous of the fate of civilian Berlin. But Hitler
wasn't ranting every hour he was awake. He was, like the father of most dysfunctional
families, capable of making people love him when he was between tantrums. And
as he shuffles back and forth through the cramped spaces of his Bunker, dealing
with trivia (well) and larger issues (blindly), he invests this Hitler with
something no screen portrayal has ever possessed before: a soul.
The frightening effect: at times, you almost feel sorry for him and his cohorts.
They have parties. They eat lunch. They wonder if they should slip away. They
say they can't: not while he's still here.
Then they do something to remind you who they are.
Oh, shit, these are the nazis we're talking about.
If the movie has anybody whose humanity has been completely eaten away, it's
Joseph and Magda Goebbels, who are just as chillingly unknowable here as they
are in most screen retellings of these events. They figure in one of the most
horrifying film sequence in years: Magda's murder, by poison, of her drugged
children, who she does not want living in a world without national socialism.
Over a period of several minutes, she goes to each child in the large brood,
one at a time, places the cyanide capsule between their teeth, then makes them
clamp down. Each child shudders and lies still. She remains dry-eyed as she
leaves the room, refuses an embrace from her husband, and goes off to play one
last game of solitaire, her hands steady.
The movie is not confined to the bunker. There are major story threads taking
place in the ruins above: including one involving a ten-year-old boy who considers
it his duty to help the soldiers save Berlin, and the father who wants him to
stop. The scenes set in the doomed city, which clearly depict hundreds of wounded
huddling together in the wreckage of buildings, while overworked doctors perform
battlefield amputations, are like scenes out of hell. When Hitler dies, the
movie still has another forty minutes left to go. The larger picture provides
the context for any viewers unfamiliar with history: this is what that kind,
gentlemanly figure with the hair-trigger temper has reduced this country to.
DOWNFALL is actually the second movie to humanize Hitler; the other, MAX, took
place immediately after the first World War and involved a half-mad, ranting
Hitler befriended by a Jewish art dealer played by John Cusack who almost succeeds
in making him give up politics for art. That film was interesting, but only
on the level of an intriguing failure. This one works on the level of a genuine
masterpiece, and it raises the immediate question of whether it should. Is there
anything to be accomplished by humanizing these monsters? Making sympathetic
figures out of those who see that the cause is lost, and urge the Fuhrer to
spare what remains of Berlin? Even in making us fret about the fate of sweet,
naive young Traudl Junge, who was after all only a secretary with no real power,
but who enthusiastically worked for one of the most evil men ever to walk the
planet Earth? Who at one point refused his offer to release her from duty, and
stayed by his side until the very last day, even planning to join him in death?
The answer is yes.
It's too easy to see these people as less than human.
As aliens. Others.
But they were human. In a sad, horrifying way, they may have telling representatives
of our sometimes sad, horrifying species. They were corrupt and they were hateful
and they were evil incarnate, but they were human, as prone to moments of folksy
warmth as those who just as blindly plunge their own nations into lesser cataclysms.
We'll never understand them if we never understand that. The trick lies in seeing
what they are as well as what they've done. And what they might do, if we fall
for their slogans again.
As expected, DOWNFALL ends with closing notes detailing the number of people
who died in World War Two, the number specifically killed in concentration camps,
and the fates of the dramatis personae. It's stunning to note just how many
of the people who spent some of those last few days in the Bunker, with Hitler,
survived (sometimes in freedom) for decades after the deaths of the regime's
victims. They lived til the '70s, '80s, '90s. Junge herself survived well into
the new century, where just before her death she allowed herself to be interviewed,
at length, for a film aptly called BLIND SPOT. The very last shot of the film
features this now very old woman, talking about how she used to tell herself
that she couldn't have known the scale of the Fuhrer's crimes, and how she continued
to deny her own guilt until she passed a monument to a fallen resistance leader,
her own age. "It was always possible to find out," she says. She just didn't
let herself know. She had too much affection for the smiling man with the friendly