Hitler and all that: Why Downfall is a very good film and why I wish I hadn’t seen it

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!

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Guy
Guy
2022 years ago

Hmmm, yes. Chilling.

My thoughts on it are here.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Nicholas, though I haven’t yet seen Downfall(I intend to, but things take quite a while to come to our regional area!)I saw the documentary part of ‘Downfall’ was based on–a totally unvarnished, talk-to-the-camera interview of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary. It was an extraordinary thing.
I understand your feelings, but I really think such things are absolutely necessary when people persist in portraying Hitler as the Devil, and therefore out of history, out of context, and totally responsible for everything that happened. Therefore nothing is learnt. It’s not enough to see Downfall, I’d say, but to be really well informed about the whole period and the man himself. I think it’s absolutely necessary if you want to understand Hitler and the Nazi mind, to read Mein Kampf–which is not a nice experience but wich is absolutely illuminating on Hitler’s character. Everything’s in there–his vile hatreds, his scatological insults, his mad ranting–and also his vainglorious boasting, his crazy egotism(his portayals of himself as a perfectv student who knew so much better than his teachers have to be read to be believed!) and a surprising streak of sardnic humour, esp when he describes his ‘bourgeois’ political opponents(it’s rather disconcerting when you catch yourself laughing at some acerbic pen-portrait, only to rememer whose is the pen writing this!). Also it’s worth looking at a lot of the tosh that was around at the time–the whole ‘mystical’ Germanic stuff published in countless magazines and books. Hitler did not arise in a vaccuum, that stuff had been circulating since the 19th century, and was at fever ptch during World War One too..Hitler just crystallised and distilled it, afdding the force of his cold-burning personality to it..Also books by people like Albert Speer, and the exytraordinary interviews with Nazi war criminals recorded by Gitta Sereny..The trouble with only reading wonderful books by heroes and honest people like Primo Levi and Sebastian Haffner is that they are exceptional people who saw Hitler for what he was; a great many people did not. The other thing is to read books like Piers Brandon’s The Dark Valley, a history of the 30’s, which really puts things in context of the times..One thing is that it makes you realise just how hideously tumultuous that supposedly ‘carefree’ ‘frivolous’ period of between the wars was, too. Then as well as lots of books, there are a few films I think are absolutely necessary to see: two that people may not know is ‘Max’, about Hitler’s youth and ‘career’ as a painter–an amazing portrayal by Noah Taylor, incidentally–and ‘Lacombe Lucien’, Louis Malle’s searing film about the Occupation.
Incidentally, I’d also like to see a similar film made about Stalin. The closest ones I’ve seen are two Russian films–‘Burnt by the Sun’, and ‘The Thief’, Both though are lateral looksat the Stalinist period, the one about a general ‘purged’ by the Red Tsar, the other an extraordinary allegory of the ‘thief’ that was Communism.

dk.au
dk.au
2022 years ago

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘enlightenment’ from the film, Nicholas. If you want to learn about the Third Reich, read The Authoritarian Personality, watch Leni Riefenstahl’s films, go to Germany and get to know the culture, language and people.
But this film isn’t about the Third Reich, and it won’t teach you about how and why it came about. It’s about the close of the war in Berlin and the madness, the sheer madness, that accompanies it. Don’t think you’ll learn about the Berlin that arose from the ashes by watching it either. (The post-war division of that city is beautifully portrayed in Goodbye Lenin! and the 1995 film The Promise.) I was lucky enough to see the film in Berlin. The bus trip across town to the cinema, actually past the site of the bunker (now a parking lot like any other), remains of the Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie stark reminders of that other tragic, and seldom discussed, chapter of Berlin’s history – the brutal enforcement of ‘Socialism with a human face’

Mindy
2022 years ago

I remember seeing a film of a Hitler speech some years ago now. The speech was in German, but I knew who he was. That, nor the language barrier, didn’t stop the way he spoke of being really effective in stirring up emotions and making me believe that he really believed what he said and that it was the way to go. It was a really strange experience. Even though I knew it was Hitler, and I couldn’t understand the German, I found the whole thing hypnotic. I can understand how the German people fell under his spell. I fell in less than 3 minutes of listening to him. Which left me feeling profoundly disturbed for some hours.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

of course he had charisma.
He knew hoe to push all those buttons , dogwhistle polics Ibelieve it is called now, that enabled the Nazis to appeal to different in some cases contrary sections of the German electorate.

remember too Germany is essentially the only vou try to get out of the depression and it happened when he was in power.
given the circumstances I would bet a lot of germans turned a blind eye to what was going on.

Das Boat. What a film.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Homer, there was no ‘dogwhistle’ whatsoever about it. It was loud and very clear to all. Whatever one can say about Hitler, he did not trick people or try to influence them with subliminal messages. Only those who really wanted to kid themselves afterwards could pretend he didn’t tell them what to expect. what he did was roar out at the top of his voice all the ugly things Germans had simmering in their hearts over years of defeat and disillusion–all the wounded pride, rage, humiliation, sense of superiority, and search for scapegoats. More positively too he crystallised for them their sense of destiny–first brought into shape by Bismarck, their mystical sense of oneness with ‘the Fatherland’, their romantic attraction to the grand and the charismatic and the warrior code. In him too all the streams of the time–such as the belief in eugenics(a widespread belief, not just in Nazi circles or indeed in Germany only); the dropping of Christianity for other, more self-created ‘New Ageish’ grab-bag of beliefs such as theosophy, Grail knights, telepathy, etc etc(the attraction of the Nazis to the ‘occult’ and mystical was huge); the sense of being in a pivotal time, the growing power and influence of the mass media–came together. He was an evil genius because he was so good at gathering together all these things. Plus he was a very shrewd political operator, and knew not only how to intimidate opponents but how to draw supporters to him–including with lots of generous social policies for ordinary Germans, long as they were good ‘Aryans’.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

I’ve never thought Hitler was more awful than any other national or sectarian leader that engenders violence and destruction. Seems to me he told the masses what they wanted to hear ‘blood and soil’ etc and you can have jobs and money and got up a popular following.

The problem is that he was mad and stupid and a great publicist.

His stupidity is self-evident. It is stupid to believe that genocide is going to work and stupid to think war is going to work.

Such is the way of the world and people. He just had a great publicity campaign in the first instance. The Nuremburg rally awesome – only the the cynical wouldn’t have been carried away there and awe …. and terror. Lots of people fervently believing an orchestrated case is terrifying and awe inspiring and thus perversely admirable – at least in terms of Speer and Riefenstahl

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Sorry sophie but he sold different messages to different groups by telling a different message.
Yes if you read Das Kapital you would have know but before he came to power sales of that dreadfully boring book were VERY low.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

“His stupidity is self-evident. It is stupid to believe that genocide is going to work and stupid to think war is going to work.”

They worked for Stalin. They worked fot the Romans. They worked for lots of people.

It’s a mistake to characterise your enemies as “stupid” just because you don’t like what they do.

Hitler is overrated as a villain. Stalin was worse in quantity, and Pol Pot was worse in quality.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“Hitler is overrated as a villain. Stalin was worse in quantity”

Only because Germany lost the war. If Germany had won the war, they would have murdered every remaining Jew and Slav in Europe.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

Homer, Hitler wrote Das Kapital? Now you tell us……

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Homer,

I agree with Sophie. No doubt he told different things to different people – as a politician it would be pretty amazing if he didn’t. But the amazing thing about him was the straightforwardness of his blueprint – published for the world to see. Its hard to think of a parallel. Can you?

The parallel for Australian dog whistling, would be a public document (however well or badly it sold in the bookshops) signed off by John Howard saying that the Australian people need to be treated with the contempt they deserve, setting out (for instance) the Tampa exercise from the perspective of its real political motivations, rather than the politically symbolic meaning that he gave it. “We decide who comes to this country and on what terms”.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Dave, the Nazis’ war aims were the extermination of the ‘sub-humans’ (principally the Jews, but also gypsies and homosexuals) and the enslavement of the ‘inferior races’ (principally the Slavs). The Slavic peoples were envisaged as a vast labour reservoir in the service of Greater Germany. No doubt many would have died had Hitler won, but I doubt that Stalin’s benchmark of 20 million dead – bettered only by Mao, with 30 million – would have been matched by the Nazis.

And Evil’s right – no-one did it better in quality of murder terms than the Khmer Rouge. That was genocide with style.

I didn’t understand Homer’s reference to Das Kapital either. If he’s saying Stalin’s crimes can be traced to Das Kapital in a direct link – as Hitler’s attempted extirpation of European Jewry can be traced to Mein Kampf – he’s drawing a very long bow.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Sorry,
I get no marx for saying Das Kapital when I should have said Mein Kampf!

both were long boring books.
MK did not sell well.
Thew Nazis were thugs but few people realised this until they were in power.
how else can you explain the enabling legislation being voted on when they did not have the votes by themselves.

Hitler clearly knew when he used his brilliant oratory ( never forget that nor trhat goebbels got his inspiration from WW! Great Britain) how he would appeal to different people because of the reaction it produced.

Hitler, Stalin , PolPot etal.
They were all human beings who were evil but who had other human beings exterminate large anount of human beings.

holocausts are not the exception to the rule.
They occur with regular montony.

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Actually Rob, I think Stalin’s crimes can in fact be traced back to Das Kapital.

Note first that all Marxist regimes involved the systematic imprisonment and murder of dissidents.

This is what Marx referred to as “the dictatorship of the proletariat” as it inevitably turned out in reality.

By artificially dividing society into a good class (proletariat) and an evil class (bourgeoisie), Marx set the stage for the extermination of anyone who could be identified as the latter. This was the Marxist equivalent of Hitler’s division of races in Mein Kampf, and led to the same result.

The above of course is somewhat simplified for brevity, but the common behaviour of Marxist states was no coincidence, and was foreshadowed by their stated ideology.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

As always, Evil Pundit, you are wrong.

Marx had little if anything to say about the dictatorship of the proletrait in Das Kapital, which was a critique of capitalism, not a blueprint for socialism. Marx wrote sbout the DOTP in his earlier works. And in any case Marx viewed the DOTP as only an intermediate stage, believing that the need for the use of state power of the working class over its enemies would disappear once the classless society had emerged.

It was Lenin who was specific about what DOTP meant in The State and Revolution.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

evil

Hitler is not my enemy.

I don’t think that violently killing groups of people or individuals is an effective way of creating a workable society. The examples you cvite of this strategy working are also great examples of how it did not.

it is a marvelous mystery how humanity falls overitself into the same bear pits over and over again.

I don’t think I believe in evolution.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

And Marx did not say the bourgeoisie were evil. It was just the way capitalism worked that they exploited the working class, but that had nothing to do with ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Marx was not a moralist. What’s more, Marx thought capitalism would play itself out and eventually be replaced by communism, as a matter of evolution. He wasn’t a revolutionary.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

i think i believe Hobbes

‘nasty, brutish and short’

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Okay Dave, then it wasn’t in Das Kapital but in his collected works that Marx called for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I confess I didn’t get all the way to the end of DK.

My point still stands. By declaring one part of society the enemy of the rest, it is inevitable that an ideology will oppress that “enemy” if and when it gains power.

Nazism had the Jews as the main enemy, Communism had the Capitalists as the main enemy. Both enemy categories were expanded greatly to include more people as time wore on.

Whether or not Marx was a revolutionary is beside the point. Both Hitler and Marx divided society into “oppressed” and “oppressors”, and empowered their “oppressed” to murder anyone who could be filed into the “oppressor” class.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

“I get no marx for saying Das Kapital when I should have said Mein Kampf!”

No you should have said “Mea Culpa”

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

I haven’t seen the film yet but I tend to agree with Sophie’s para above that Hitler didn’t dog whistle. The agenda was pretty clear from most of what I have read. I also think the New Age mumbo jumbo contributes. [I don’t have any evidence for – in fact I read the Da Vinci Code and I havent felt the urge to join the Masons or Opus Dei – assuming they would have me. Any one with inside info – C.L? ;-)]

I am influenced somewhat by the thinking in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”. I don’t think the unique Evil Monster theories lead us anywhere helpful. I’m sure Pol Pot, Adolf, Stalin, and others loved their kids, looked after their pets well and took their mothers flowers regularly. To pretend otherwise is to lose any lessons that we might learn.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

FXH,
remember that Hitler was a Wagner fan and would talk for hours on his operas.
ey Marx and Hitler both spoke German and love to sponge of others. Easy to get it wrong!

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

Homer – havent seen you around much – what you up to these days? More importantly what music you listening to? Your tastes matured at all?

hazym
hazym
2022 years ago

All this talk of the German’s succumbing to Hitler’s lies or charisma needs a little clarification. We need to remember that Hitler or the Nazis never really achieved anything better than the support of a third of the German voters. When Hitler ran for president in 1932 against the bumbling old warrior Hindenburg he achieved only 36% of the vote. In the last free elections in Nov 32 the Nazi vote declined by 2 million although they still got around 30%. So yes they were massively popular but so were the communists and Hitler finally achieved power because the power brokers feared the increasing power of the communists.
It may be true that in later years after seeming success more Germans were pro-Nazi but we’ll never know especially since we cannot know the effect of mass unrelenting propagandising

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

hazym, that is exactly right so he needed other parties to vote for the enabling legislation which they did.
It was that vote that condemned Germany to Nazism.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

hazym makes a good point. Long ago, Alan Bullock argued that Hitler came to power through a backstairs intrigue. That is, the reactionaries (the junkers, the German ‘landed gentry’) supppoted his elevation to the Chancellorship because they believed a) he would deal with the communists, and b) they could control him. They were woefully wrong about b).

It’s also the case I think that the Germans did not quite realise what they were voting for. William Shirer in ‘Berlin Diary’ (he was there at the time) records that the German people were horrified when they discovered that Hitler had gone to war with Europe. They didn’t want the second World War: but the Nazis did. We need to remember that when we talk about ‘German war guilt’, IMO.

Evil, I take your point about the Marx-Stalin connection, but I don’t think Marx ever actually said that socialism required the extgermination of the kulaks (Lenin) or the deliberate mass starvation of millions through forced collectivisation of agriculture. (Stalin). These may have been the consequences of the application of his theory, but I don’t know that you can say they were the *intended* consequences.

Whereas Hitler made it quite clear what he was going to do, as Sophie has said. I remember when I was doing German history as an undergrad, we had an elderly Austrian guy in the class. He described how, prior to the Anschluss, he and some friends were debating whether Hitler was really as bad as people said he was. This guy said that at one point he went out, got hold of a copy of Mein Kampf and pointed out a few of the more terrifying passages. “That’s what he’s going to do”, he said.

Rainer
Rainer
2022 years ago

Ah, Das Boot. You should have seen/lived through the about 6 hours of the Series that was shown on TV before the film was cut together from it. Much more of the tedium and horror of living squashed together in such a small boat.

I have not seen Der Untergang yet but i will go to see if it can throw some new light on what happened at that time (my uncle was killed in Berlin in the last days of the war).

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

I’ve read Mein Kampf, and I can’t remember any passage that actually described extermination of populations in so many words.

For instance, IIRC Hitler said he was going to move all the Jews to Madagascar and not that he was going to massacre them.

Like Marx’s book, Hitler’s book implied but did not openly state the consequences of his ideology.

suszoz
2022 years ago

Christa Wolf’s book ‘The Quest for Christa T’ (Virago) about her childhood in Nazi Germany (she was born in 1929) gets inside the mindset of ‘ordinary’ people in those times.

suszoz
2022 years ago

oops, wrong book, that should have been ‘A Model Childhood’.

harry
2022 years ago

Hey Nicholas,
“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

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Yes Harry, all fair points

harry
2022 years ago

I should have extended my post Nicholas. I don’t disagree with you – I think that the claustrophic feel was deliberately induced by the fly-on-the-wall. Using the Secretary as a main character was a good move because she was often staring wide-eyed in confusion or fear and the viewer can’t but feed off that.
I personally grind my teeth when something in a film is getting to me – usually the feeling of being an uncomfortable voyeur. I ground my teeth a lot in this film.
There was a lot of helplessness and impotence in the film. Again that makes for uncomfortable viewing eg when the hitler youth girl gets the man to shoot her, or the civillians being hanged with signs reading “Communist helper” around their necks.