Der Untergang (Downfall) – reviewed for SAU Blog, April 28th 2005

Downfall loomed large in 2005 as a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps, at that point, the fact that some of the survivors of Hitler’s bunker were still alive made it all the more vivid as a story. It is an intense watch, with a lot of suicides (the wikipedia article Mass suicides in 1945 Nazi Germany is worth reading for an overview of this phenomenon) which has, perhaps unfortunately, become best known because of the Hitler Reacts meme.

Here is my SAU review, which perhaps somewhat uncomfortably combines my evident enjoyment of the film with my recognition of the point made by Michael Burleigh forcefully in the TLS. It is also instructive to note Burleigh’s 2005 comment on Germany – “the economy limps along, and the great currents of history flow elsewhere” – the years since have heightened Germany’s power in the world considerably:

Der Untergang (Downfall)
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
certificate 15, 2004

Watching Der Untergang in the cinema, what is most striking is the sheer strangeness of seeing a believable Adolf Hitler incarnated on screen. The opening scene is set in November 1942, and four young German women are shepherded to Hitler’s headquarters in Rastenberg, East Prussia. One is to become Hitler’s secretary. One of these ladies is Traudl Junge, on whose memoir To The Last Minute, along with the historian Joachim Fest’s consultancy, the film is based.

The friendly guard knocks on the door to see if Hitler is ready to receive the ladies. Slowly, Hitler emerges. He shuffles across the screen, oddly reminiscent of Nosferatu in Murnau’s and Herzog’s films. His voice, too, when he speaks, is strangely vampiric; throaty, guttural and rasping South German. This, along with his courtesy, gives him a tired, grandfatherly air. He is kind to the young women, putting them at their ease and asking them to drop the “Mein Fuhrer” business, before selecting the Munich girl Junge for an individual audition.

In his office, Hitler first fondles his dog Blondi, before telling Junge not to worry about making any typing errors, as no-one could make as many mistakes as he does while dictating (so to speak). In a trial dictation, Junge freezes up. The pressure of the moment gets to her. Hitler notices, and gently asks her to start again.

The action then shift to April 20th 1945, Hitler’s 56th and last birthday. He is spending it in Berlin, discovering that Russian artillery is shelling the city from a mere 12 kilometres away. Hitler is considerably less kindly to his military staff on discovering this news. Later, we see his bitter regret that he did not imitate Stalin and wipe out his officers, who are now failing to manoeuvre various armies largely existing in Hitler’s imagination rapidly enough to bring them to bear on the situation.

One objection made to the film – most notably by Michael Burleigh in the TLS – is that, far from being brave and ground-breaking, it is very much in line with a certain Germany tradition:

Successive German ambassadors to Britain have chided us about this country’s unhealthy obsession with the Third Reich. In fact, much of this obsession is a response to Germany’s own addiction to the Nazi past, as anyone can easily establish by flicking through publisher’s catalogues, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, or channel-hopping German television. The obsession seems to be growing, for as the economy limps along, and the great currents of history flow elsewhere, Germany’s artistic finest again and again try to freshen up the old brown gang to showcase their talents, going where Grass, Beuys, Kiefer, Syberberg and all the rest have been many times before.

Of course, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film differs from the work of the artists Burleigh mentions in that it is in a popular medium, one bound to have a much greater reach than the works of Beuys or Kiefer. It has garnered enormous international attention as the first film to “humanise” Hitler, showing him being kindly to his dog and his secretary. Bruno Ganz’s central performance – praised for its brilliance by all critics I have read, including Burleigh – is remarkable. It is somewhat absurd to claim to find the portrayal of a man who died thirty-three years before I was born convincing, but based on newsreel footage and the simple fact that this portrayal is not that of a caricature Hitler foaming at the mouth, Ganz is an uncanny double.

I do not share Burleigh’s low opinion of the film’s artistic merits, but his suspicion of this film as part of a cult of Nazi-myth making is worth bearing in mind. Certainly considering the lovingly presented DVD packaging in Vienna I came across a few days after seeing the film in Dublin, (the film is already on DVD release in the Teutonic world) with its undeniable air of bunker-chic, I felt somewhat queasier about the whole enterprise. The Premium Edition DVD package features a cardboard case inside the main slip case, the dirty concrete colour of the bunker walls. The two DVDs nestle in this handsomely designed case, with little bits of bunker signage printed on the cardboard.

My queasiness is partly at the sheer power of the story. It would be one thing if it was a bombastic propaganda piece, filled with obvious national self-pity. The film is much more artful than that. As well as its considerable histrionic and artistic merits, any story of desperate men and women facing their last days on earth has a power to move. At various stages I found myself dabbing at tears, thinking at the same time that damn it, this is the end of Nazism, the end of the worst tyranny the world has known, here on the screen. Some of this is the simple, unsubtle power of the cinema screen. It is a rare film in which we feel the absolute absence of empathy with the protagonists. Some is the nature of what is being portrayed, and even the most ardent anti-Nazi would surely find the Goebbels children’s fate monstrous and tragic. But of course, that fate was chosen by Dr and Frau Goebbels, just as the fate of all the characters was chosen by Adolf Hitler.

There are many beautiful touches – the instant lighting of cigarettes all around the bunker when the Fuhrer expires, the burial party that has just hurled Hitler and Eva’s corpses into a hole to be consumed by petrol-fuelled flames forced to break off their last Heils to take cover from artillery fire – and, pace Michael Burleigh, it is a very impressive piece of film making. The music is striking, with its undertones of Wagner (Gotterdammerung seems never to be far from the imagination of those who deal with the last days of the Third Reich), but never overwhelming or emotional.

Some years ago, Simon Schama wrote in the New Yorker of the Hollywood films set in the past that betray a tin ear to the otherness of other times. He was writing about Amistad, Spielberg’s boring civics lesson steeped in modern mores and social attitudes, as well as the likes of Michael Collins. Mainstream Hollywood treats the past as a source of instant pseudo classiness, as opposed to a different world to be explored and chronicled with care and attention. Troy, with Achilles and Hector spouting sentimental and/or atheistic tosh that would have repelled Argives of any era, was a prime example.

Schama contrasted the usual Hollywood history with films like Aguirre, Wrath of God and The Return Of Martin Guerre, which truly inhabited the ultimate foreign country, the past. Of course, no film will ever be historically accurate in the pedantic sense of internet-based obsessives (and its worth noting that flatulent historical epics leached of anything that might trouble modern audiences in terms of morals or behaviour invariably employ legions of experts to ensure that the swords are the right length) but it is worth at least trying. Just as historical novels freighted with research flounder if they fail to capture an atmosphere or a mood of the past, an embarrassment of scholarly solecisms can be forgiven if this elusive atmosphere is captured.

Der Untergang, too, is a film which meets Schama’s test. It has an ear for the past that goes beyond the details of uniforms and weaponry. Aside from its emotional pull, the inevitable result of any filmed depiction of similar events, its power derives from this sense of being close to a documentary. Of course, no doubt a host of errors and conflations of facts are present, and this sense of historical authenticity is – always has to be – something of a sham. Burleigh notes, for instance, that while the film’s heroes are largely from the Waffen-SS, none of these are French or Latvian volunteers – which he identifies as a factor in making this:

a chauvinistic film with disagreeable undercurrents of German “victimhood”.

Burleigh also noted the coyness of the non-depiction of the Fuhrer’s suicide. I can’t recall seeing a film featuring so many self-murders in my life – indeed by the end so often have we seen SS men blow their brains out that it loses all impact – yet the central suicide is unshown.

We see a corpse wrapped in a blanket, and a bit of blood on the sofa, but not the annihilating moment. But then to show Hitler shooting himself might indicate a certain finality, the last thing anyone inadvertently collusive with Nazi myth-making seems to welcome.

It is the annihilating moment, and after Hitler departs the scene, the rest of the film is curiously flat. It is somewhat like, ironically, The Merchant of Venice, with things being nowhere near as interesting once Shylock departs in Act IV. Of what remains, the Goebbels family suicide is the most uncomfortable scene to watch. There’s a curious and disturbing sense that, having denied us the final sunset of Hitler, we are made to watch as if in compensation a mother’s infanticide of her own children. Interestingly, the camera cuts away too from Goebbels’ shooting of first his wife and then himself.

One can also sympathise with Burleigh’s observation that:

Rather than watching Hitler morosely shovelling down mashed potatoes and pulses in his claustrophobic underground empire, we could have had more ideological insights or something to give clues as to how this possessed nonentity came to power. The quotidian trivia are so distracting that you might almost miss the fact that this wreck of a man has slaughtered 6 million Jews.

Normally I have little sympathy with those who demand that directors achieve “balance” in their films, confusing filmmaking with coalition building. But I do in this case, firstly because of the enormity of the Nazi crime, and secondly because Hirschbiegel himself pulls away from the claustrophobia of the bunker to try and give us a sense of “balance”. In the only overtly mawkish touch in the film, we see a father desperately try and persuade his son, one of the children decorated by Hitler for their tank-busting endeavours, to abandon the struggle. The boy treats his father with contempt, until his companions are killed and he runs crying home to Papa. The vignette does tell us something of the destruction rained on the German people by the tremulous wreck incarnated by Ganz, but one feels that, if we are shown this, why not something of the horrors suffered by the Russians, or the Poles, or the Jews?

Der Untergang is a potent piece of work. As a work of cinematic art, it has much to recommend it. Any recommendation, however, has to come with an injunction to read about the men and events portrayed in it, and more especially the actions of those men which led to those events. Its power is impressive, but also proof of the superiority of the written word to visual drama to the achievement of an understanding of history.



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