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Zettel Film Reviews » Downfall – Ganz’ Hitler transcends performance

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Downfall – Ganz’ Hitler transcends performance

Bruno Gantz as Hitler

Bruno Ganz as Hitler

Downfall (Der Untergang) – Director Oliver Hirschbiegel

Hitler and the Holocaust occupy a unique moral space. The man and his deeds are somehow off the scale of our normal judgement of right and wrong. Even beyond the grave, his charismatic spirit exercises in equal measure both a terrible fascination and deep repugnance in us. So disturbing is he, as a paradigm of the deliberate, rational, systematic pursuit of inhuman policies and objectives, that we create fictions to cope with the psychological disturbance he induces in us. Most common of these evasions is to try to bring him into our frame of rational reference, as a mad monster. Another is to deny the facts through what has become known as Holocaust denial.

Downfall is an important film precisely because it calmly and dispassionately eschews all evasions. It holds a mirror up for us to see, without dramatic embellishment, the dreadful, chilling truth: here was a mere man; unprepossessing of stature and intellect, capable of kindness and sympathy on an individual human level, who engendered extraordinary levels of commitment and loyalty. Yet he was prone to almost farcical but deadly incandescent rages, and able to persuade those around him that truth was a function of his will, not of the objective facts in the real world.

That this strange, odd little man systematically destroyed 6 million souls with clinical organisation and industrial efficiency; and set in train events which killed over 50 million more, is a fact beyond reason. It is not surprising therefore that portrayals of Hitler are deeply problematic. This makes Bruno Ganz’s Hitler in Downfall quite extraordinary. He somehow brings all of these contradictions together with such chilling authority and authenticity that he transcends the notion of performance. This sense of authenticity is enhanced by the superb playing of all those around him.

Dramatically, seeing the events in part though the eyes of Hitler’s secretary Trudl Junger, who survived the war, not only contributes to the feeling of accuracy of the film’s account of events, but also adds a certain detachment of perspective which enhances the sense of authenticity. Technically, Director Hirschbiegel’s unobtrusive editing and powerful use of sound, creates an intense feeling of claustrophobia: both of the immediate setting of the bunker, but also of course, the encircling, enclosing advance of the allies on Berlin. So real is the atmosphere Hirschbiegel creates that one leaves the cinema with a sense of escape and relief.

Misgivings have been expressed at the descriptive, non-judgmental spirit of the film especially as it breaks a long observed taboo in Germany against portraying Hitler on screen. Such criticism is misconceived. If anyone viewing the film is not already aware of, and appalled by, the historical events portrayed, it is ludicrous to think they could be brought to a ‘proper’ moral perspective through an overtly judgmental perspective within the film. It is the historical truth that must be faced. Only if we first, as we do, feel the genuine human distress of the appalling Helga Goebbels as a mother, as she calmly and effficiently first drugs, then poisons her 5 children, can we even begin to understand the corruption of true feeling that led her to the view that she could not face a world without National Socialism in it. A feeling and belief so strong it led her to destroy the lives of her children.

Downfall is a disturbing, harrowing, challenging work of art. For once, an important subject is well served by an important film. It, rightly, offers no explanations or reasons. It is left to the real Trudl Junger on camera, just before her death in 2002, recounting her shock at the facts of the holocaust, to suggest a possible lesson: “that it would have been possible to find out more and we should have.”

Zettel 2005

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