Downfall — Comprehends the Enigmatic Face of Evil

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In the modern history, there is no other lunacy like the one unfurled by the Nazi party. Thank God or any other good forces for making the Nazis to reach their apocalyptic point in the sprawling underground bunker. Nearly seven decades after Hitler’s death, the man has been perceived differently all over the world. The silly mustache and crazy ideas made him subject of black humor. Prejudiced individuals or groups hailed ‘Hitler’ as a hero. However, he is mostly depicted as a monster who sat at the helm of a mass-destruction machine. It is easy to categorize an evil individual as a ‘monster.’ It makes us feel that we don’t share any common thing with that individual. But, eventually we can’t deny the fact that Hitler was a human – a living creature with emotions and feelings. That’s what Oliver Hirschbiegel’s harrowing Downfall(Der untergang, 2004) tries to do. By putting recognizable emotions on the face of an evil incarnate, the German film allows us to analyze and form our own opinion on what shaped him rather than plainly stating that Hitler’s evilness was preternatural.

Movies that tackled World War II from the perspective of Germans are very few. The new wave German film of the 70’s, initiated by Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“The Marriage of Maria Braun”) gave metaphorical treatments to the Nazi past. A renowned exception was Wolfgang Peterson’s anti-war submarine classic “Das Boot” (1981). “Downfall” must be the first German production to have Adolf Hitler as the central character. Two American productions chronicled the last days of Hitler (“Hitler: The Last Ten Days” and “The Bunker”), but they are totally inferior when compared with “Downfall.” American films on World War II have repeatedly portrayed Germans as stock villains and Allied forces (excluding Russians) as bona fide heroes. Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, Polanski’s “The Pianist” were some of the exceptions.

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When internationally released, director Oliver Hirschbiegel was criticized for presenting a sympathetic figure of Hitler. There is not much truth in that criticism. As you will see, in the powerhouse performance of Bruno Ganz, Hitler comes off as a petty and conscienceless ‘human being’, who believed that people deserved to die for his mad ideologies. “Downfall” was based on the memoirs (“Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of Third Reich”) of Traudl Junge – Hitler’s private secretary. Junge lived up to 81 years of age(died February 2002) and was interviewed countless times by historians and journalists (watch the documentary “Blind Spot – Hitler’s Secretary”), since she witnessed a side of Hitler, which only few of the inner circles members ever experienced. So, director Hirschbiegel explores the paradoxical Hitler from the perspective of the naive, 22 year old Traudl Junge.

The beautiful Alexandra Maria Lara plays Junge and she helps us perceive Hitler as his close associates. In the film’s opening scene, we see Junge getting interviewed by Hitler himself. She was 22 in November 1942. She is a shy girl who after being hired feels joy and the privilege of closely witnessing the Fuhrer. Then the narrative jumps three years, to April 1945 as the Russians close in on Berlin for an Allied victory. In his underground sanctuary, Hitler lurches with his lunatic rages, watches over maps and imagines that some miraculous army will secure him a victory. He issues unfathomable commands and screams at everyone who contradicts him. He also bids his loyal followers to execute officers who try to flee the city. Great significance is given to the characters of Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels and Magda Goebbels. It was also a great decision to not end the film with the suicide of Hitler. It stretches beyond that point and shows us how each of his associates dealt with the defeat.

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Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler is chilling not just because of those fitful rages. Ganz’s Hitler sees himself as a man of the people as his underlings throw themselves at his knees. When he sits for meal with his secretaries and when he awards medals for the child soldiers, he exhibits a grandfatherly gesture. These scenes might make you think that the director or actor is trying to bring out the good side of Hitler. But, that definitely is not the point. What Bruno Ganz tries is to expose the complex, multi-nuanced emotions that are inherent even within an evil fanatic. Performance-wise “Downfall” is not a one-man show. Hirschbiegel fills the movie with an interesting set of female characters, who doesn’t do any evil themselves, but watches it as it is being done.

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The most sobering character, next to Hitler, was that of Magda Goebbels. In one of the movie’s horrific scenes, we watch her dosing her own children (six of them) with sleeping pills and then when they are unconscious, she places cyanide pills between their teeth. She says that she cannot stand the thought of her children living in a world without National Socialism. This kind of blind devotion — which convinced a mother to murder her children — shows us why the all-powerful Hitler was deemed as dangerous person.

“Downfall” (155 minutes) is a must watch history lesson that accurately shows how an ideology hinged upon destruction will eventually turn on itself. The wide-ranged perspective of the film encourages us to think about the subject and its themes long after the rolling of end credits.

 

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