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Monday, January 12, 2009 08:59 PM
On the Viewer - Downfall
 by Fëanor

I just recently finished watching Downfall, a film based on two books about the downfall of Nazi Germany, one of which was written by someone who was actually there when it all went down: Traudl Junge, Hitler's last private secretary. Although there are many characters in the film, and we follow events from various different points of view, I would say that Traudl is the primary main character of the film. Downfall is set in and around Hitler's bunker in Berlin during the last few days of Germany's participation in WWII, and attempts to be a very accurate, if dramatized, account of those times.

Any film retelling any part of the story of the Nazis and WWII is bound to be disturbing, but Downfall is disturbing in a particularly interesting way: it tells the story entirely from the perspective of the Nazis. Every major character in the film is a Nazi. You are therefore left with the dilemma that if you sympathize with anyone in the movie (and it's constructed to force you to do just that), you are necessarily sympathizing with a Nazi. And not a half-hearted, Schindler-like, "good" Nazi, either; we're talking about people like Hitler, Goebbels, Albert Speer, Himmler, SS officers, and all the top generals - the kind of people who choose to kill themselves and all their little children because they can't bear to think of themselves or their families living on in a world without National Socialism. Admittedly, the most central characters - Traudl and Dr. Schenck - seem to be decent human beings, from what we see of their actions. They do not kill themselves for the Reich, and Schenck looks on the very idea as insane and barbaric. Traudl is a tender young woman, and Schenck is a humanitarian, risking his life to collect medical supplies, to try to stop executions, to save the sick and wounded.

Still, it's very unsettling, finding yourself being tricked by the conventions of film into feeling for these characters and their plight. I'm used to movies like the Indiana Jones movies, where all the Nazis are just plain evil and you can settle back and happily hate them unconditionally. This film doesn't give you that easy out.

Of course, that's not to say it supports the Nazis, either. Hitler is not a hero here; he's a madman, living in a fantasy world, convinced almost until the very end that somehow Germany will have its victory. It's painful to watch him spin out his wild ideas for the future when everyone else in the room knows they are not based in any kind of reality. He asks the impossible, gives insane orders, and no one has the courage to tell him the truth. When his officials plead with him to surrender, and spare the citizens of Germany the agony and the death that will come with drawing the conflict out further, he refuses. If they are weak and have failed, then they deserve destruction, and he has no pity for them.

There is debauchery amongst the wreckage, as the officials and civilians inside the bunker try to take what comfort they can while the world is falling apart around them. It's an endless, Mad Hatter's dinner party, an insane celebration amidst the disaster, led in large part by Eva Braun.

The latter half of the film is an orgy of killing and suicide as even the top Nazis give up on the idea of winning and embrace what they feel is the only other option: death. Again, the movie forces you into an uncomfortable but almost unavoidable position. As you watch the German war effort fall to pieces, and see all these men and women killing themselves, it is impossible not to feel depressed. But are you depressed because the Nazis are losing? How can that be? It reminds me of Hitchcock's disturbing ability to turn things around and force you to sympathize with the murderer, as he does in Psycho.

One of the film's most brutal moments, which I've already alluded to, is when Magda Goebbels executes all six of her young children by giving each of them a sedative and then coming into the room and forcing each sleeping child to bite down on a cyanide capsule. Again you are not given an easy out. The camera doesn't wait outside with Joseph Goebbels. You must watch as each and every one of the six children is forced to drink the drug, and then as Magda places the capsule in each and every one of their mouths and forces their jaws closed. It's agonizing and absolutely horrific, but you cannot turn away.

Little is said in the film about the Holocaust. A couple of times Hitler mentions how much he hates the Jews, and at the end he's certainly not repentant (in fact, in the final statement he has his secretary record, he lists killing so many Jews as one of the accomplishments he's most proud of!), but there is no footage of the Ghettos or of the Concentration Camps. Of course, this film is not about that; it's specifically a history of the final days in and around Hitler's bunker in Berlin. But it still feels like a rather large omission.

It's hard to know how to feel about the movie. We're so used to hating the Nazis and seeing them as the most hideous Other that it's hard to accept a film that turns us around and forces us to see through their eyes. It seems almost immoral. But it's clear that Downfall does not do this to condone anything the Nazis did. It does so instead so that we will look at these people and see them as people. It is a chronicle of human beings amidst the madness of war - a reminder of that horror. And it forces you to realize that, yes, the Nazis - even Hitler himself - were human beings, and not just faceless monsters. Some insist it's dangerous to think of Hitler as anything but absolute evil personified, but I disagree; I think it's important to remember that he was just a person. It doesn't take a demon or a monster to perform acts of unspeakable horror; regular people are quite capable of it. We can't ever forget that. And if Downfall helps us to remember, than its value is difficult to calculate.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), Nazis (Not), On the Viewer (Not), WWII (Not)
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