The downfall of British prejudices

Deep down, we should have known all along that Hitler was human
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The Independent Online

If you have seen the trailers and followed any of the discussion among reviewers, there are only two reasons why you might then decide to spend time and money to see Downfall, the German film portrayal of Hitler's last days in the Berlin bunker.

If you have seen the trailers and followed any of the discussion among reviewers, there are only two reasons why you might then decide to spend time and money to see Downfall, the German film portrayal of Hitler's last days in the Berlin bunker.

The trailers play to Second World War voyeurism; they show spectacular explosions, stereotypical Germans running for their lives and dismal panoramas of destruction. Watch this, they shout, for a Boy's Own war experience where the good guys prevail and evil is defeated yet again.

The reviews, both here and in Germany, have - rightly - lauded the quality of the acting and directing. They have paid tribute to the historical accuracy and attention to detail, all of which is derived from primary sources. But they have also launched a philosophical discussion about this first German depiction of Hitler as human, and mostly not in a positive vein.

Man or monster, they ask, before concluding that humanising Hitler is a perilous, if not utterly wrong, course to take because it opens the way for Germans collectively to wriggle out of their historical guilt and redefine themselves as victims.

So - see the film by all means, for its outstanding technical merits, but don't fall into the trap of believing in this Hitler who looks, for some of those last harrowing days at least, deceptively normal.

Thus we in Britain are encouraged to persist in our very British prejudices. We can exult in our heroic national role in the war (this time off-stage; the on-stage liberators are Russians). And we can silently denounce Downfall as a typically German view of recent history which cuts Hitler, his SS henchmen and his besotted lady admirers, an unconscionable amount of slack (that is, any slack at all). Even as we watch the great metal door of the bunker close for the last time on the live Hitler and hear the single shot, we can console ourselves with the thought that those Germans still don't understand.

But perhaps it is we who do not understand. Yes, Adolf Hitler is depicted as a more human figure than we have ever seen him - at least those of us without memory of those years. We see him in weakness. We see him distressed and angered by the treachery of associates. We see him almost affectionately pinch the cheek of an over-eager boy recruit and we see the hold he exerts over women.

Yet the fawning adoration of Eva Braun and his secretaries (one of whose accounts provided much of the material for the film) comes as little surprise. We were given a glimpse of his supposed charm and charisma from the accounts of the Mitford sisters among others. Nor are we necessarily taken aback by the despairing anger he evinces as he realises that he is almost the last to know of the proximity of the advancing Russians. No one dared tell him. That is a standard feature where strong and ruthless rulers are concerned.

Deep down, we should have known all along that Hitler was human. In fact, we probably did. We just chose to take the easier path. It suited us to consign him to history as monster, not man, because that relieved us of the obligation of trying to understand how he came to be what he was and do what he did. We could simply dismiss him as a singular tyrant and "evil": that explained everything.

But it does not explain everything. If anything is to be learned from this period of European history, it must begin with the recognition that Hitler was human.

For me, the more affecting insights of Downfall came not from the Swiss actor, Bruno Ganz, as Hitler - compelling though his performance was - but elsewhere. The first was the cold-blooded calculation with which the immaculately turned-out Frau Goebbels "put down" her model children, reasoning to herself that life would not be worth living, for anyone, in a non-Nazi world. National Socialism was the vision that had inspired and dictated her whole existence, and for her it was a realisable goal. The second was the answer given by Goebbels himself to Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, when she pleads with him to persuade Hitler to surrender Berlin in order to spare the lives of civilians.

We need not trouble ourselves here wondering whether this is Frau Junge trying to burnish her image for the benefit of history. What matters is Goebbels' reply: "The people gave us a mandate," he says, "and now they can cut their little throats for us." He, like Hitler, is shown as profoundly disappointed in the inability of ordinary Germans to live up to their soaring national ambitions. The inadequacy of the people in the eyes of their mandated leaders is an abiding theme of this film.

In neglecting the humanity of dictatorial leaders, we abandon any effort to understand how their megalomaniac ideas began, why they thought what they thought, and what they believed they wanted to achieve. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein ... We failed to listen to what they said, we failed to understand what they were about, then we explained that failure away by demonising them. We simply took it for granted that their first instincts were evil, not only towards "us", but towards their own people.

This is no way to learn from history. But it is a temptation that we British have found just as hard to resist as have the Germans. If there is one film that cries out for a "prequel", it is Downfall.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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