I remember being interested in seeing Downfall, the 2004 movie by Oliver Hirschbiegel when it came to theaters, and somehow getting the idea it was a biopic/memory of Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge.  I must have imagined a close, intimate look at someone who, in hindsight, might be sympathetic in some degree, and by extension, her boss.  I decided to pass.

It turns out that is not at all what Downfall brings to the screen, even though Junge’s book about her time as Hitler’s secretary is one of the sources used for the story and even though she, herself, now as an old woman, opens and closes the movie with some sincere repentance for her youthful unawarness.

In fact Downfall is a very intense war movie, leaved with intense small group and individual scenes in Hitler’s bunker, in Berlin, as the city is being bombed non stop by the allies.  The city is going up in flames.  Young boys and girls are being bullied, promised and tricked into being last-ditch defenders as the Russians close the circle and Hitler fast loses touch with reality, screaming at subordinates to give the orders to non existent German armies to attack and drive the Russians back.

Bruno Ganz lifts the gestures, vocal range and even ghost of Hitler himself to play the man. His rages against Himmler’s “treason,” indeed, against the German people — as not having met the challenge he had brought them to change the world– are real in their lunacy. The supporting cast, from Junge [Alexandra Maria Lara,] the naive and star-struck, 22 year old secretary, to General Helmuth Weidling [Michael Mendl] the crusty old General who undertakes the impossible task of defending Berlin, are very good.  Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels just couldn’t be better cast and Corinna Harfouch as his wife Magda, tenderly kissing her children before killing them —“I don’t want them to grow up in a world without National Socialism–” is his equal.

With the knowledge of hindsight we watch somewhat dumbfounded as the swarm of officers, knowing there is no chance of victory, still stand by their oaths of loyalty — to death by suicide.  We ask the much asked question.  What had gripped their psyches?  In these final days, with most of them knowing, as the film depicts, that Hitler had lost his senses, yet not one of them was able to step out, organize the others, declare him insane, lock him up, shoot him or push him off a cliff and sue for peace.  The fear within such a group of making the first move explains much about the sad course of history. Loyalty and fear of betrayal creating the perfect cage.  Yet in this case, it seems that everyone knew; everyone.  From the safety of distance it seems to have been a low risk opportunity, yet no one could take it.

When the movie was released it raised quite a ruckus in Germany — spear headed by a scathing essay by Wim Wenders, taking the director, and producer, both friends of his, to task for a too sympathetic portrayal of Hitler.  He points to some very interesting directorial choices.  While the movie is filled with mayhem and up-close gore, as people are blown up, legs are amputated, heads splatter against walls, when it comes to Hitler’s suicide — both cyanide and a pistol in the mouth– and Goebbels –probably a pistol–   the camera is not present, or turns away.  When Hitler and Eva Braun are carried out to be be burned, as requested, they are covered with blankets, and not visible.  Wenders asks why this is so, and what impression it gives — perhaps of a certain “untouchability.”

Others complained about scenes showing Hitler solicitous and gentlemanly with Trudle, the secretary, scenes showing him exhausted, stooped, despairing — as a man to whom our sympathies might extend, the monster being given a certain cover.

Hirschbiegel responded that it was no service to the understanding of  Hitler to think of him only as a monster.  That he was sympathetic, and kindly to some, tender with Eva Braun, sometimes filled with despair are all true. That he attracted millions who did not see him as a monster, but as a savior, a hero, a father-figure, a martyr, is true.

I agree with Hirschbiegel that to encase a Hitler or a Stalin in a box labeled ‘monster’ is to prevent ourselves from knowing when the next one begins to attract his followers…  I recall being outraged in 1976 at Bernardo Bertolucci’s incredible movie, 1900, when Donald Sutherland portrayed a Nazi officer as a pathologically cruel, cat killing, sadist.  The scene was virtually unwatchable. I was outraged because by painting this symbol of Nazism in such a way, the real danger was obscured.  Although the Nazis terrified many, they came to power with a considerable weight of approval behind them.  The danger, then and now, was that in their climb to power they seemed like reasonable, even familiar, people.

It was doubly interesting to me to see the movie in the midst of listening to an audible rendering of Lynne Olson’s Citizen’s of London — an excellent introduction, or general review, of London in WW II, and particularly the Americans who stood with England in the first year and a half of Germany’s onslaught.  The United States was gripped by the isolationists far more than is generally remembered today.  The Republicans in Congress would not be moved by the powerful reporting and repeated warnings of Edward R Murrow.  He began his war coverage as bombs dropped over London for 57 consecutive nights through the Battle of Britain, and he continued broadcasting from a basement room at BBC for the entire war, inventing international news radio and putting CBS on the map.

The book is worthy of longer attention than I can give it here, but I was reminded by it that even as Berlin was about to fall, as Hitler’s madness was consuming even himself and he was about to commit suicide at the end of April, 1954,  V1 and V2 rocket attacks were continuing to rain down on London and Antwerp and other cities, making the days of the Blitz in the summer and fall of 1940  seem like not such a big thing at all.

Watching Downfall momentarily added to the sense I’ve held, with too many others, that once D-Day happened, the rest was inevitable.  Not so.  Reading Citizens of London reminds how nearly the world came to any one of many different, and ugly, endings.

Very good stuff