Tonight I did what any normal person who is suffering from borderline clinical depression would do—I went to see a three-hour movie about Adolf Hitler. “Downfall,” starring the amazing Bruno Ganz as Hitler, was nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars and I think it should have won. It is a remarkable depiction of Hitler and company’s final 10 days. The film takes place in his Bunker and also in the brutal streets of bombed-out Berlin. One of the main characters in the film is Traudl Junge, herself the subject of a fascinating documentary I saw a few years ago called “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” in which she discussed what it was like to work for Hitler and how, while she claimed she had no idea about the genocide that was taking place, she came to believe that her youth was no excuse—she should have found out what was going on. But from where she sat, Adolf was a kindly old gentleman who treated her respectfully. It was only when she was taking dictation that she saw the massive disconnect between the Hitler she knew and the murderous ravings she was typing up.
There has been much controversy about the film’s “humanizing” of Hitler. I don’t get this at all. Of course he was a human being—THAT is one of the lessons we most need to take away from the Holocaust, that human beings, not alien monsters from another planet, perpetrated such madness. How easy it would be to take ourselves off the hook by thinking of Hitler as non-human. I’m glad they showed Hitler being so nice to his secretary and petting his dog Blondi, and acting like a sweet grandfather to the SS Officers' children. I think it’s important to see the full picture of how a charismatic leader with unlimited power can seize the soul of a nation and cause ordinary people to commit such atrocities.
Along with Traudl Junge, I found the female characters in the film the most fascinating. Juliane Kohler was a revelation as Eva Braun, Hitler’s main squeeze whom he married the day before their double suicide. Her Eva evoked Carole Lombard, or I should say Carole Lombard on crack. She was hopelessly giddy throughout the film, throwing lavish parties even as the Russians were moving closer and bombing the crap out of Berlin, and while all the other wives of the Nazi honchos were dressed in the finest 1940s couture, Eva favored folksy German costumes that made her look like she just stepped out of a Bavarian dairy farm. All the better to please her mann, with his perverted fantasies of pure and unsophisticated Aryan womanhood. At a few key points in the film we see cracks in Eva’s happy-go-lucky veneer and get a quick glimpse of the terror that lived just underneath. She knew she was on a collision course with death and that she was in too deep for any way out.
I was completely riveted by the character of Magda Goebbels, as played by Corinna Harfouch. As the aristocratic wife of Hitler’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, Magda shows up at the Bunker with her six sweet-as-stollen children. As the film progresses and tensions are bubbling over in the Bunker when it becomes clear the war is lost, we keep seeing shots of the Von Trapp-like Goebbels children singing lovely German songs in perfect harmony. This sugary view of the Goebbels kids would be hard to digest in normal circumstances, but we are in on a little secret. Magda Goebbels can’t conceive of her beautiful children living in a world without National Socialism so she has a plan to make sure that doesn't happen. The scene in which she carries out this plan is shown in excruciating detail, and it is heartbreaking and horrifying.
I’ve rarely seen such a realistic looking depiction of the gruesome aspects of war. Limbs being blown off or sawed off in makeshift hospitals are a matter of course and the director constantly juxtaposes the freshly scrubbed faces of the Hitler Youths willing to die for their Fatherland with the unromanticized violence and destruction that drenches every bit of 1945 Berlin. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we attempt to lull ourselves into the fantasy that such a thing could never happen again, I think we could all benefit from a trip down to Hitler's Bunker.