Hitler and the angst-ridden corridors of Nazi power

Bernd Eichinger (director) Downfall general release

Bernd Eichinger's two-and-a-half-hour-long epic Downfall has recently hit British cinemas, and (almost predictably, given its subject matter) not without some controversy. Based on two recent publications - Inside Hitler's bunker and The final hours - the film can be seen as, on the one hand, part of a continuing theme of German cinema, in that, through the eyes of one of Hitler's secretaries, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), it represents another attempt at Vergangenheits-bewältigung - explaining and coming to terms with the atrocities of the Nazi past. Yet, on the other hand, it can also be seen as a departure from the German war film genre in its explicit focus on the life of the increasingly deranged Adolf Hitler within the labyrinth of his drunken, angst-ridden bunker, with the Red Army getting ever closer to taking Berlin. The use of the original German dialogue with subtitles is effective - not least in the sense that it serves to retain the original brilliance of Bruno Ganz's performance as Hitler - an explosion of paranoid and contradictory orders, commands and threats, brilliantly juxtaposed with more intimate scenes with his staff and close cronies - all delivered in a coarse German dialect. This highlights the humanity that is present even within such an inhumane figure, who will stop at nothing to achieve his dreams of an Aryan super-race ruling over the world. The title Downfall (Der Untergang) works on two levels - firstly in the sense that Berlin is about to succumb to the power of the Red Army, and secondly through hinting at the crisis and possible demise of existing social relations. German society had capitulated into subservient obeisance to someone who, in spite of an insanity obvious to those around him, displayed an understanding of human interrelationships to the point that so many refused to desert him even in face of death. Junge's character serves as a fitting metaphor for power relations within patriarchal Nazi Germany - a woman so close to Hitler, but so distant from his plans and commands; someone drawn in by his powerful, intoxicating personality. The plethora of suicides, pleas for Hitler to leave Berlin for safety and the drunken orgies within the bunker as an attempt to escape from the impending doom simply highlight how both cannon-fodder soldiers and cronies like Joseph Göbbels (Ulrich Matthes) could not believe that the Endsieg would escape them and that everything their leader had said would turn out to be false. As the "best woman in Germany", Magda Göbbels (Corrina Harfouch), shockingly puts it in justifying the death of her children, "I would rather my children die than grow up in a world without national socialism." This focus on human interaction within the film is arguably its main strength, clearly borrowing a number of artistic elements (and indeed actors) from Joseph Vilsmaier's Stalingrad -another 150-minute epic that, despite the doom and tragedy of one of the most terrible battles of human history, permits the appearance of small signs of humanity rising above the horror. This emotional, character-based cinema does have limitations in terms of historical analysis, but wonderfully serves to portray the anti-human nature and utter alienation of both war and the uncritical subservience to a dictator. Constant repetition of scenes where people are seen smoking together, or enjoying a bit of Sekt and Schnaps as a way of getting through the misery of bunker life, only reinforce this. In and of itself, the plot is quite bland - we simply follow Junge's life from her nervy job interview with Hitler through to her recollections of her Nazi past in late life, with the camera only escaping the harshly-lit interior of the bunker to show the anarchy of wartime Berlin. Yet it is the underlying human aspect of the film, and its ability to intertwine a number of relationships that makes it compelling from beginning to end: the love of a father for his 14-year-old son, called up to join the war effort; the loss of close friends on the front line; and the agonising over how best to take one's (and indeed each other's) life. Critics have highlighted how such an approach humanises Hitler, portraying him as somebody caught up in a rather odd fantasy, thus leading the audience to sympathise with him in the way that Menno Meyjes's film Max was also criticised for doing. Certainly it is true that in certain scenes we see Hitler showing genuine compassion for those around him, and sometimes throwing out the odd sarcastic witticism. It is also true that Hitler's near schizophrenic personality dominates the dialogue and the camera. Yet this focus on Hitler, the man, is not seeking to glorify him by arguing that 'his heart was in the right place' or 'at least he built the autobahns'. Rather it reflects a tendency to seek a psychological explanation for the phenomenon of fascism - that is, to argue that Nazism won over the German population through appealing to base instincts, embodied in the ability of Hitler to solve the puzzle of the human psyche in his demagoguery. As Junge herself points out to another secretary in the bunker, "He says such brutal things, but in private can be such a nice man." Thus to criticise the film for 'humanising' Hitler is to fundamentally misunderstand it. Not once did I feel compassion for this hunchbacked psychopath whom Ganz brings to the screen - he is far too shocking for anyone to empathise with (although understanding him is quite another matter). Rather, Downfall simply reinforces how the Nazi project was a deceptive, anti-working class project that whipped up the masses into false hopes through populist and vacuous statements in order to feed the dreams of a clique who had slid their way into establishment politics and then wreaked havoc upon the working class both in Germany and abroad (ironically a glimpse of ordinary people trying to arrive at a key decision for themselves is seen when a group of soldiers discuss whether they should shoot back at the Russians about to engulf them). Guardian-type moralists have also argued that Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) is presented sympathetically or even heroically when he admits to Hitler that he had failed to obey a number of his orders. Yet this simply serves to emphasise the anarchic command structure within the Nazi bunker, and allow us to witness Hitler's increasing frustration, as his dreams and fantasies crash down around him. This was no apology for Speer, who everyone knows was a die-hard Nazi to the core. A major weakness, however, was the film's rather disappointing ending, reflecting the problem of a purely psychological attempt at understanding the phenomenon of fascism. In the final scene, the screen is superimposed with text informing us of the 50 million killed in the war and the six million Jews murdered. This is followed by an extract from a recent interview with Junge, who says that being young was no excuse for getting involved with the Nazis. The problem with what is being implied - everybody was guilty and it is down to the individual to prevent any recurrence through the shunning of hero-worship and personality cults - is that it gives existing liberal society a clean bill of health, rather than looking back to the phenomenon of fascism as the most brutal form of the rule of the monopoly bourgeoisie, whose tyrants may have been able to appeal to base instincts, but on the basis of anti-human values and the scapegoating of minority groups for the evils of capital. The film is nevertheless a brilliant, painstakingly researched exposure of the circle of power around Hitler and the Nazi leadership - it succeeds in portraying humanity amongst horror, brutality and death. It raises a number of interesting ideas which communists must reflect upon in our own attempts at Vergangenheits-bewältigung and coming to terms with history. Ben Lewis