Downfall (15)

At home with the Führer
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The Independent Culture

The voices raised against Downfall ( Der Untergang), a film about the last days of Adolf Hitler and his staff, argue that it has somehow humanised the Führer. Their argument is quite correct: the picture does show Hitler as incontrovertibly human, which is why it is disturbing as well as magnificent. Much as we recoil at the notion, the quintessential hate-figure of the 20th century was a man, not a monster, and if we are to put his crimes in the dock, then all that we mean by "humanity" must be hauled up there, too.

The voices raised against Downfall ( Der Untergang), a film about the last days of Adolf Hitler and his staff, argue that it has somehow humanised the Führer. Their argument is quite correct: the picture does show Hitler as incontrovertibly human, which is why it is disturbing as well as magnificent. Much as we recoil at the notion, the quintessential hate-figure of the 20th century was a man, not a monster, and if we are to put his crimes in the dock, then all that we mean by "humanity" must be hauled up there, too.

Set over the last 10 days of April, 1945, the film recounts the death throes of the Reich in a dual narrative: above, the nightmarish chaos of Berlin, shattered by the onslaught of the Red Army, and below, the cramped confines of the Führer's bunker. The director Oliver Hirschbiegel concentrates on the latter, using a handheld camera to stalk through narrow passages and enclosures much as Wolfgang Petersen did in his great German U-boat movie Das Boot, conjuring the ghostly pallor of subterranean life under the constant threat of death. The difference being, Petersen's film was buoyed up by our sympathy for the U-boat crew; in Downfall, on the other hand, we are witnessing the evacuation of rats - Goebbels, Himmler, Speer et al - from a ship that can't sink fast enough.

Hirschbiegel and the writer Bernd Eichinger, acknowledging the problem of identifying with the world's most infamous goon squad, anchor the movie around the person of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler's private secretary, whose remorseful memoir of her time in his employ furnished much of the film's insider detail. Through Frau Junge's eyes we glimpse the bunker existence and its weird alternation between domestic routine and the Bacchanalian disarray of Nazi partying, much of it giddily orchestrated by Eva Braun who, in Juliane Köhler's compelling impersonation, hardly seems to realise the gravity of her situation. "Pity we can't go outside any more," she trills, trying to be heard above the explosions.

It is also from Junge's point of view that we are allowed to see the other side of Hitler, the man who treated his female staff with gentle courtesy, would pet his German shepherd Blondi, and would make a personal favourite of Frau Junge herself. There is a moment late in the film when Hitler, frail and palsied, meditatively eats his lunch, then thanks his cook for the delicious repast, and Junge watches him in fascination, as though this were a different being from the one whose megalomaniac tantrums she has overheard in the operations room.

That switch between quiet resignation and vindictive hysteria requires a massive performance, and it gets one. Bruno Ganz, whose melancholy gaze has been a mainstay of European cinema, didn't seem an obvious choice for the role, but he gets under Hitler's skin with alarming plausibility. When he rages against the treachery of his subordinates, it is a hair's breadth away from comedy, though plainly nobody present felt much like laughing. Faced with another deluded rant about his hopelessly outflanked armies, his generals seldom do anything beyond exchanging a look of numb despair, and when he dismisses any idea of compassion for the German people ("They themselves are to blame"), they muster no argument. Ganz locates that hypnotic force of personality that bewitched both individuals and the masses. Even Braun, pleading for the life of her traitorous brother-in-law, eventually submits - it is the Führer's "will" - and the offender is executed.

The film is just as good on the minions who danced to his tune. The priestly calm of Speer and the ferrety officiousness of Goebbels are superbly caught by Heino Ferch and Ulrich Matthes respectively. As for the character of Goebbels's thin-lipped wife, Magda (Corinna Harfouch), she seems to have arrived from a horror movie, which, in a way, this is. There is perhaps nothing more appalling than the scene in which she poisons her children one by one, while outside the room her husband waits, complicit but frozen. But then there is no shortage of terrible sights in this movie, and a vital part of its strength is to show, without editorialising, how its burden of shame devolves upon the mesmerising figure of Hitler himself. For all the private glimpses of his avuncular nature, it's hard to see how Downfall could possibly be judged as any kind of apologia.

One of the film's recurrent images is of children, belatedly dragooned into the Hitler Youth and dying under the bombardment of Russian fire. These are the same children we see being greeted earlier by Hitler in his last public appearance outside the Reich Chancellory; one diminutive recruit he fondly pinches on the cheek, a gesture that's almost defiling when you consider his obscene disregard of youth elsewhere. Told that certain young officers have been killed, he says with typically blithe callousness: "That's what young men are for." Even when all hope is lost, he insists that his armies fight to the last man, and on his orders civilians who attempt to sue for peace are murdered by Nazi death squads.

Nor is there any catharsis occasioned by his death. The flight of his staff from the bunker is no tragic Götterdämmerung but a hurried and slovenly retreat. Whether Hirschbiegel's film has been a step on the road to national expiation I don't feel qualified to say, though it feels like an honest attempt to bring the past into focus. He concludes with the real-life Junge talking to camera about her time as Hitler's secretary, and how as a 22-year-old she had no idea of the evil he was perpetrating. But she's brave enough not to hide behind her ignorance, and the note of self-rebuke is haunting: "It was no excuse to be young."

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