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German films explore Nazi terror and the resistance to it

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Recent films by German directors, including Downfall, have looked at Hitler’s regime, writes Stefan Bornost
Issue 1946
German soldiers panic as the Nazi regime comes to its end in Downfall
German soldiers panic as the Nazi regime comes to its end in Downfall

German filmmakers are making a new cinematic effort to come to terms with the Nazi years. In the last three months, two big productions have been box office hits — Downfall, which was released in Britain last week, and Sophie Scholl.

The success of the films reflects a rising debate in German society. Unemployment hit 5.1 million in February — the highest figure since the 1930s.

An openly fascist organisation, the NPD, has made a electoral breakthrough in Saxony, grabbing 9.2 percent of the votes. This has led to growing concern about the threat of fascism.

More than three million people have seen Downfall in the four weeks since its release in Germany.

This film looks at Hitler’s last days. We witness the complete collapse of the morale of the Nazi leadership.

Nothing is left of the “1,000 year Third Reich” that Hitler had proclaimed, aside from the demoralised remnants of Hitler’s closest supporters attempting to drink themselves into oblivion in his bunker.

The figure of Hitler is portrayed in a credible fashion by the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. For the first time an attempt has been made in German film to portray Hitler as a real person rather than simply a beast.

Producer Bernd Eichinger claimed he wanted to deepen our understanding of the Nazi era. But the film fails completely to do that. The viewer is left bewildered. How could a bunch of madmen rule a modern country?

Hitler is in one scene the nice, gentle uncle, in another a histrionic psychopath. This is true to historic accounts, but in no way explains why Hitler could continue to rule the party and state machine.

The decision to focus almost exclusively on the bunker and its dwellers is a hindrance to drawing a more complex picture of German society in the final days of the Third Reich.

For a much clearer insight into the last years of the Nazi rule, wait until Sophie Scholl comes to British cinemas.

This film reconstructs the last six days in the life of anti-fascist student Sophie Scholl. She was arrested in February 1943 for distributing leaflets at the University of Munich, together with other members of the student resistance movement White Rose. She was executed shortly after.

The film is based on transcripts of Scholl’s police interrogation as well as those of her show trial by the Nazis’ so called “people’s court”.

These documents remained inaccessible to the public for decades, buried in the archives of the former East Germany. The filmmakers also conducted interviews with witnesses, including Scholl’s younger sister.

The film centres on the trial and Scholl’s questioning, during which she sticks to her principles and defends herself admirably. She begins to take up questions of freedom, conscience and responsibility.

Her resistance was based on growing popular opposition to the war and its consequences.

In February 1943 the Nazis were forced to concede that the German army had suffered a devastating defeat at the battle of Stalingrad and ordered a period of mourning for fallen troops.

A former member of the White Rose group, Susanne Zeller-Hirzel, recalls that in 1943, “everyone realised that the war had been lost”.

Sophie Scholl and her friends were convinced that Hitler could not survive much longer in office. Their actions were intended to pave the way for a mass movement that would lead to the downfall of Hitler.

Producer Sven Burgemeister says, “Our film is about civil courage, a theme that is always relevant.

“I can imagine that people even today would long for a figure like Sophie Scholl, someone who, without thinking about her own fate, relentlessly fought for society.”

Stefan Bornost is a member of the socialist group Linksruck in Germany

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