I have just been to see the German film ‘Downfall’.
If you’re concerned about it ‘humanising’ Hitler, it does. It presents him as a three dimensional character with charisma, and gravitas. He’s even courteous a lot of the time at least when he’s not apoplectic with rage particularly to women, and he’s passingly kind to the pet dog. How that’s supposed to be a big deal is a little beyond me.
It’s a cliche of which I’m already sick, that you have to paint a three dimensional picture of Hitler to explain how the Germans could have fallen for him. The argument rolls off the tongue or the pen well enough, but it’s essentially irrelevant to this film since it doesn’t really show how the Germans could have fallen for him. Hitler is already too far gone in May 1945 for this to be illustrated. It just shows his inner circle in their smitten state.
The reason for humanising Hitler in this film is an artistic one if you don’t humanise him, it makes for lousy art. What’s the alternative that he howl at the moon? And while I can’t vouch for its accuracy, the film does a compelling job of portraying Hitler in his dying days in three full dimensions.
Some readers of this may have seen the German film ‘Das Boat’ about a German U-boat crew. Almost all of ‘Das Boat’ takes place inside a U-boat and the mix of claustrophobia and anxiety gets to you without your necessarily being fully aware of it. In my experience, this is a powerful formula for ending a film with a big emotional bang. Undermine the equanimity of the audience for two whole hours, then give them something to move them and bingo teary eyeballs hit the Kleenex as the lights go up. Films that follow this formula and managed to get my tissues out (not a very hard job I’m afraid) were Plenty, and “Merry Christmas Mr Laurence”. But I digress.
I remember watching Das Boat about twenty years ago with a girlfriend and when we emerged from the cinema it took about two hours of walking around, coffee shopping (well chamomile tea-ing in my state) and talking to calm down and generally recover from the anxiety and dismay it had induced.
‘Downfall’ is like that, being filmed exclusively within the dingy faux security of the Fuhrerbunker or the mayhem in the streets around it. As with ‘Das Boat’, after a couple of hours of softening you up in ways you hadn’t been fully aware of, the ending changes the scene in a powerful way.
Downfall is a very good film. Its believable, well plotted, characterised and acted. Normally this is a recipe for a film I really want to see. But had I known last night what I know today, I wouldn’t have seen the film. Why not?
Please note this is not a review, or a suggestion that you don’t see it, just a rumination on why I would have preferred not to have seen it. Ultimately the standards of quality in dramatic art that I’ve just mentioned need to be means to some deeper end of insight. For me the film as all means and no ends – all downsides and no real upsides.
Like Das Boat it is a thoroughly unpleasant experience of claustrophobia and anxiety in the bunker as this gaggle of the mad and bad get their just deserts. Mercifully there are no scenes of the horror of say ‘The Pianist’ proportions. Even so, the director makes sure that some of the obligatory ‘brains blown against the wall’ scenes are presented so as to rob you of enough time to flinch and turn your head away. (All part of the modern ideology of realism and the idea of attending the cinema as an act of courage what a laugh!)
Yet it didn’t help me understand or appreciate what happened or its significance. It offered no enlightenment to me anyway.
I can anticipate several objections to what I’ve said to which I’ll sketch responses and hopefully in the process say a little more of what I want to say.
1. It wasn’t unremittingly ghastly there were good people in the bunker.
Yes there were. (The portrayal of Hitler’s secretary was too favourable for my tastes. At one stage at the end of the film she’s filmed in a ‘Hollywood’ shot with her hair back-lit with rays of the sun streaming through which was a bit of a shock for me.). But there was never any real focus on their dilemmas or at least not any that provide me with any enlightenment about those dilemmas. In all the ghastliness and grayness of the setting there wasn’t much greyness in the moral dramas presented. Just some good Germans doing their best amongst the madness ingrained in the Third Reich.
2. Why did you see it then? What were you expecting? Why did you go see The Piano?
I plead (mainly) guilty. I am interested like many people fascinated by the period with a desire to understand more about it. When I think of stuff that I’ve read about the Third Reich that I’d recommend to anyone its either straight history and reportage or its stuff by eye witnesses. The incomparable Primo Levy is an example, but a more recent one is Sebastian Haffner’s book, written in 1939 and published a few years ago called ‘Defying Hitler’.
3. This is real life or the best representation of it we can manage are you afraid of life?
I plead guilty. I regard the Third Reich as a burning black hole in our psyches it certainly is in mine. The heart of darkness has an ineffability about it. I think this idea is suggested by the way Conrad’s goes about his novel “The Heart of Darkness”.
People argue that fiction cannot elucidate the holocaust and I think they might be right. Certainly the ‘degree of difficulty’ of pulling it off is extraordinary. A lot of people liked Sophie’s Choice, but I found it inauthentic. As a result, while it was well made in all the standard ways, I found it really really tacky. Degree of difficulty 10. Dive bellyflop. Result 0/10.
In contrast to what I thought was the falsity of Sophie’s Choice, Downfall was not false. It was well made in all the standard ways, and only very occasionally tacky (I’d put the ‘Hollywood shot’ of the secretary in that category and to a lesser extent the entire portrayal of her). But its subject was the heart of darkness of the Third Reich and you need more than the skills of good movie making to make that a worthwhile exercise.
So . . . Go see it if you want. It is, as I say, a very good film. But I don’t think there’s anything more to be got out of it than some good indeed virtuoso acting and all the other technical arts of film making. If I see a film tackling a subject as serious as this it requires more for me to think it worthwhile. I can imagine many readers thinking this is an eccentric view, and writing it down, it occurs to me that they may be right :).
But it will be interesting to see what people make of it. Let the conversation begin!