Bernd Eichinger is shaping up quite nicely as the enfant terrible of German cinema having produced two controversy baiting epics – ‘Downfall’ and ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ – in the last five years.
‘Downfall’, directed by Oliver Hirshbiegel, was always going to be a hot potato. Not enough that it was the first German film to depict Hitler onscreen, Eichinger and Hirshbiegel drew fire from critics who questioned their portrayal of Hitler in what they saw as a sympathetic light.
Which begs the first question that needs to be asked of ‘Downfall’: does it? I’m not convinced. Hitler (Bruno Ganz in a performance that descriptions like “barn-storming” and “full-throttle” were invented for) is variously shown as a stroppy old git with a hair-trigger temper; an utter delusional, issuing orders for the defence of Berlin and the defeat of the Allies to troops who are either in retreat or have been wiped out; and a pitiful wreck, bent double, hair unkempt, hands shaking.
No, what ‘Downfall’ does is portray Hitler not sympathetically but as a person. And people are fallible. They kid themselves, they fall out with other people, they lose their rag. They fuck up. Adolf Hitler fucked up on a global scale at the cost of millions of lives and untold human suffering. That’s the difference.
Next question: isn’t it a better decision, morally and intellectually, to depict a man like Hitler as just a man – albeit one with a sociopathic disconnect from any standard of normal or responsibly functional behaviour – and not some impenetrable force of darkness with a bristly ’tache and a bad comb-over? Isn’t the usual filmic depiction of Hitler – a scowling, stentorian, fiery-eyed, Hadean presence – actually a cheap and easy way out? Doesn’t this approach effectively reduce him to the status of a pantomime villain, and by extension lessen the enormity of his horrific legacy?
Better by far a film brave enough not to treat the Führer as a set of visual clichés and a square of glue-on bum-fluff on the upper lip. Better by far a film that seeks not to demonise, but neither sympathise; not to try to ‘understand’ Hitler and his actions, but neither deny or obfuscate them; a film, instead, that portrays him. As accurately as possible*.
Working from the books ‘Inside Hitler’s Bunker’ by Joachim Fest and ‘Until the Final Hour’ by Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller, Hirschbiegel charts the final catastrophic days, both in the bunker and on the shell-scarred streets of Berlin, leading up to – and beyond – Hitler’s suicide. That ‘Downfall’ continues for a good 40 minutes after Hitler and Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) take their lives is telling. And it prompts the next question: is ‘Downfall’ necessarily about Hitler?
In one respect, it can’t not be. Hitler is the hub around which the action of the film moves. Even when he’s not centre-stage. And there are large amounts of screen time where he isn’t. Which is to say: Hitler is a major character, but none of the events are seen through his eyes. I don’t think a film could achieve that – not without straying into morally dubious territory.
‘Downfall’ is told from the perspectives of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s secretary**; humanitarian physican Professor Ernst-Günther Schenck (Christian Berkel); and a young boy drafted at an absurdly young age as part of an anti-tank patrol operating on the streets of Berlin and under almost constant fire from the approaching Russian troops. The title doesn’t refer just to Hitler’s downfall – his and Braun’s suicide is just one of many; the film is awash with high ranking officials, as well as mid ranking officers, putting guns to their heads or pulling the pins on hand grenades; the most unflinching scene has Goebbels’ wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) poison their five children before he shoots her then turns the gun on himself – it’s the downfall of a government, a Reich, a monstrously misconceived political ideal; it’s the downfall of a city and its inhabitants; it’s the downfall of, to quote a line from Wilfred Owen, “half the seed of Europe”.
It’s bitterly and brutally honest; utterly unforgettable. It’s a German film.
*To the best of my knowledge only the final scene, detailing Junge’s escape through the Russian lines, is purely fictional.
**The opening scene, for me, defines the film. A group of young women are marched by soldiers through woodland to a heavily-fortified base. They are there for a job interview. Traudl Junge just happens to get the job. It could have been any of the others. Thus the film-makers neatly avoid the pitfall of giving every scene, every line the portentous relevance that only hindsight can bestow. Yes, they seem to be saying, much of this movie owes to Frau Junge’s testament, but her presence at such history-defining events was pure chance. She went for a job interview; simple as that.