Explanation and depiction of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust remain difficult for artists, historians and social analysts. When this film opened in Germany it sparked a debate around how the character of Adolf Hitler is portrayed.
This is the first German film about Hitler produced since the 1950s. The tendency in German cinema has been to show Hitler only as a background figure or as a character who does not appear on camera at all. In Downfall Hitler is centre stage and Bruno Ganz’s depiction, down to careful rendition of a notoriously difficult Bavarian/Austrian accent, is eerily engaging.
Portraying Hitler as a fully formed character has proved a controversial theme for many reviewers. The fear seems to be that showing a ‘private’ Hitler, kissing his lover Eva in public, playing with kids, screaming with rage, susceptible to paranoia and betrayal, could pander to neo-nazis. Yes, Hitler and the other characters in this piece come across as human beings – but ones to which the viewer connects not with pity or mercy but with horror and outrage.
One critical German review worried over the fact that ‘Downfall prompts the question whether one should be allowed to feel sympathy for Hitler’ and the top Nazis. Ulrich Matthes, who played Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, described the problem faced by actors attempting a naturalistic portrayal: ‘You can’t “play” evil. Goebbels didn’t consider himself to be evil, and that was the great difficulty for me, to put aside my moral judgment as an aware human being and play the role of an actor.’
But the question really isn’t about sympathy – it’s about moving beyond the notion of evil, which has real problems in providing an explanation of the devastating systematic crisis which precipitated the Nazis’ genocide. It becomes easy to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well, they were evil’, with the dangers of complacency or despondency about a repetition.
The acting is superb, with Bruno Ganz’s Hitler and Corinna Horfouch’s Magda Goebbels standing out, creating a feeling of total disgust for most of the characters. I say most for some of them are problematic. The SS doctor is a life saver in a gruesome makeshift clinic and architect Albert Speer admits to disobeying Hitler for months, from which it is easy (but of course wrong) to make the assumption that he wasn’t quite as bad a Nazi as the rest! This is the difficulty in focusing on this brief period of the last destructive days of the Third Reich with the protagonists confined to the Berlin bunker, divorced from political and social contexts outside this time frame.
The human slaughter of 6 million Jews and more than 2.5 million Russians in Leningrad alone are referenced – but cough and you might miss them. The horror is centred on comparatively minuscule acts, the nerve centre of the piece being Magda Goebbels’ systematic poisoning of her six small children, because she can’t contemplate the idea of them living in a world where the Third Reich doesn’t exist. But you are left with a feeling that this ‘sacrifice’ cannot be held in any comparison to the murder that has been carried out without any mercy.
After grappling with writing this review I am left wondering what Downfall has added to our understanding of this period. Granted this should never be our only criterion for judging art but when considering a piece that has the feel of a documentary and when dealing with subjects of ruthless and destructive regimes this becomes a decisive factor. Downfall is challenging and worthwhile for moving away from viewing the individuals as evil monsters and succeeds in realistic portrayals that inspire not sympathy but horror. However, without a view of the wider political context we are left struggling for answers.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel
Release date: 1 April
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