The Guardian 6 July, 2005

Film Review by Peter Mac


You left
For the front
Just after we were married.
I could not follow
For you marched ten thousand Li

The soldiers returned,
But you came not.
Another man came riding
In the saddle that was yours.

A Soldierís Widow,
Chiang Chi, Tang Dynasty

The gripping film Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, depicts the last period of the Third Reich in Berlin. The story is largely drawn from the testimony of the youthful Traudl Junge, who disregarded her motherís advice and applied for a position as Hitlerís secretary in 1942. The film also draws on statements by other staff of the Nazi headquarters who survived the war.

The film illustrates Hitlerís megalomanic rule in this period, and the battle for Berlin, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians.

Downfall has attracted some criticism as having shown Hitler ó at times ó with human qualities. However, the ability to charm, and even to show moments of tenderness, was an essential prerequisite for persuading the German people to accept the fascist ruler. These seemingly positive aspects of Hitlerís personality were important elements for the Reichís public relations machine, and therefore increased rather than lessened the threat that he and Nazism presented to the world.

The German industrialists and financiers who bankrolled the Third Reich and facilitated Hitlerís ascent to God-like dictatorship were well satisfied with these and other characteristics of the new Fuhrer.

Hitlerís anti-Semitism coincided with their desire to seize Jewish businesses and property. His hatred of communists and trade unionists offered them the chance to destroy working class resistance to savage exploitation. The concentration camp system he envisaged offered a labour force that could literally be worked to death (the ultimate extraction of surplus value). And the prospect of military conquest of developed nations offered them riches beyond measure.

They were particularly pleased with his great persuasive power, for both large and small audiences, and for very differing occasions. The late Jim Celkys, a former member of the German resistance, witnessed this in action when he saw Hitler visiting the Siemensí factory. He was amazed by Hitlerís ability to win the workers over, not by behaving as though he was at a Nuremburg rally, but by addressing them quietly, with affection, sympathy and hope, and above all as though he was one of them.

Seeing beyond the superficialities of behaviour to the essence of the person, and the political organisation he represented, was clearly beyond many people in both Germany and elsewhere until the war began, and afterwards (and for some of them, even now, judging by their objections to the film.)

Hitlerís behaviour, as shown in Downfall, is characterised by frequent periods of sullen, black withdrawal and manic rages. His brief moments of normal human decency, which are experienced only by his immediate acquaintances, are kept rigidly separate from, and subordinate to, his megalomania.

At one point in the film he presses a suicide pill into Traudl Jungeís palm, just in case she might need it. He remarks with a laugh, "Iím sorry it couldnít have been a nicer present." However, shortly afterwards he indulges in one of his most violent outbursts. Horrified, Frau Junge later complains to Eva Braun: "In private he can be very caring, but at other times he says such brutal things." "Oh yes", replies Eva with a bright smile, "When he is the Fuhrer!".

The Fuhrerís mistress finds out the limitations of his magnanimity when she pleads unsuccessfully for the life of her brother-in-law, who has been accused of desertion. Nevertheless, she remains loyal to him, and so do his staff. Many of them stayed with him even when they could have fled to safer areas ó that is to say, to the west. Hitlerís cohorts were well aware of the feelings of the Soviet people about Germanyís savage occupation of their country. As the film makes clear, Hitlerís underlings saw surrender to US forces as clearly the better way to go.

That was not, of course, how Hitler saw things, and the military gave in to him invariably. Anything else seemed unthinkable. The film depicts Hitler storming out of one meeting, bellowing that he is going to quit as the Fuhrer. (He didnít.) The deserted and bewildered officers begin to discuss a possible replacement, but one of them objects, shouting in rage and panic "Der FŁhrer ist nŁr der FŁhrer!" ("The Leader is the only leader!").

The statement is significant as well as ludicrous. Even when Berlin was surrounded, and defeat was obviously inevitable, the unquestioning obedience to Hitler enforced by the Third Reich inhibited any military insurrection that might have cut short the final suffering.

Hitler refused to accept surrender, despite the imminent devastation of Berlin, and with not the slightest concern for its inhabitants or any of the combatants. In Downfall, Speer (Hitlerís architect and Minister for Armaments and War Production) suggests that the civilians should be allowed to flee the city. Hitler refuses, replying "There is no room in this war for sympathy. I would not shed one tear for them." Goebells, the Minister for Propaganda, sneers: "The civilians made their choice, no one forced them. And now their little throats are being cut."

Downfall illustrates the ruthlessness of fascism, which Dimitrov (Bulgarian communist leader) described as "the open terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, most imperialist elements of capital". After Hitlerís suicide, the remaining military forces are squandered in the Third Reichís mad last stand. Children are cajoled into hopelessly manning anti-aircraft guns aimed at incoming tanks. As gaunt civilians cut up dead animals for food, old men who failed to join Berlinís pathetic and doomed "Dadís Army" are viciously beaten or executed. And in Hitlerís nicely-furnished bunker, Frau Goebells poisons her six beautiful children, rather than have them live in a world without the Third Reich.

The film is not without its failings. The end titles note that 50 million people died during the war but donít mention that half that number were Soviet people. They state that six million Jews died in concentration camps, but overlook a similar number of victims who were communists, trade unionists, gypsies, and members of religious groups who opposed the march of fascism.

The film also fails to deal with the Nazisí bankrollers, many of whom got off scot-free or received trivial sentences after the War. Itís true that this was not the essential subject matter of Downfall, but it could have got a mention, or even a hint. And one day, it would be very satisfying to see a film that investigates the blossoming of the Krupps, Thiessen, Farben, Siemens or Heinkel industrial empires under the Third Reich.

Speer, who oozed his way out of many tight spots in his lifetime, also gets off pretty lightly in Downfall. The filmís scriptwriters have accepted at face value his unverifiable claim to have disobeyed Hitlerís "scorched earth orders, and to have told him so.

Nevertheless, Downfall is anti-war and anti-fascist and is a serious and moving attempt to confront this terrible period of German history. (The filmís publicists claim that itís the first mainstream German film to actually represent Hitler.)

Australian audiences have found Downfall deeply moving. The film has great performances from Bruno Ganz as Hitler and Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge. Some of the scenes were filmed in St Petersburg. The brooding, beautiful background music (by English composer Henry Purcell, not Wagner) is brilliant.

The voice of the real Frau Junge opens the film in a description of her initial recruitment by the Nazis. Interviewed at the end of the film, she speaks about the aftermath of the war, when she first learnt about the concentration camps. She told herself she carried no blame, even though she worked in the Nazi headquarters, because she had been young and hadnít known about these victims of fascism.

However, one day after reading a memorial, she realised with a shock she had the same birthday as the anti-Nazi student Sophie Scholl, who was beheaded by the Nazis at the same time that Frau Junge started working for Hitler.

The 80 year-old Frau Junge states: "I knew then that being young was no excuse." She adds frankly: "And I could have found out what was happening."

If the film has finished screening where you are, wait for the video. Itís worth seeing.

Back to index page