A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
This review was written, out of sheer admiration, upon my first exposure to the movie in question. I just watched it again and my admiration is not diluted. For
The scene is the outer office of a very important man, where a number of young stenographers have arrived for a job interview. They are fidgety and nervous at the very idea that they will soon be ushered into his presence. When he comes out, he proves to be kind and gentle, compassionate in light of their nervousness and charmed by their eagerness to please him. He brings one, a Miss Traudl Junge, into his inner office. She is startled by the big dog sitting in the corner, but he tells her that it’s friendly and won’t hurt her. Still showing extraordinary patience, he shows her to the typewriter, and tells her not to worry, because he will likely make more mistakes than she will. After a few lines, she stops typing in mid-sentence and sits there, trembling, thinking that she’s blown it. He comes over, looks over her shoulder, and sees a simple typo. No wonder she’s so scared! An indulgent, avuncular smile crosses his face. “Let’s give it another try.”
A few minutes later she leaves the office and is embraced by the other girls when she announces she has the job.
What a sweet boss.
The kind you would like to have, if you were the young Traudl Junge.
Of course, he’s also Adolph Hitler.
The German DOWNFALL is another in a series of dramas about the Nazi hierarchy huddled together in Hitler’s bunker, clinging to their illusions while Berlin is pounded into rubble above them There have been several, all defined by their Hitlers. One starred Anthony Hopkins and one starred Alec Guinness. Despite the talent on display, most were not any good. They all had an unknowable void at their center: the Fuhrer himself, who was always portrayed as a maniacal, charmless loon, his personality utterly blank whenever he wasn’t shrieking about betrayals or ordering summary executions.
DOWNFALL is a departure so outrageous that some critics have regarded it with open hostility. It humanizes the Fuhrer. Without once diminishing his madness or denying the scale of his crimes, it treats him as a man his subordinates could legitimately regard with respect and affection. He is just as evil when he declares that the civilians dying in the city above deserve everything that befalls them, just as crazy when he stymies his generals by telling them to rely on nonexistent reinforcements, just as hateful when he places all the blame for Germany’s downfall on the Jews he’s happy to have cleared out of Europe…but he’s also, paradoxically, an adored Uncle to the Goebbels children, and the fellow who can thrill his underlings with sudden, unforced moments of warmth. Traudl finds it hard to reconcile. She confides in Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, “He’s such a kind man, but sometimes he says such brutal things.” Eva smiles knowingly: “That’s when he’s being the Fuhrer.”
Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler, inhabits the role as few ever have. Ranting, he’s a guy you want to be continents removed from: murderous, racist, filled with hate, contemptuous of the fate of civilian Berlin. But Hitler wasn’t ranting every hour he was awake. He was, like the father of most dysfunctional families, capable of making people love him when he was between tantrums. And as he shuffles back and forth through the cramped spaces of his Bunker, dealing with trivia (well) and larger issues (blindly), he invests this Hitler with something no screen portrayal has ever possessed before: a soul.
The frightening effect: at times, you almost feel sorry for him and his cohorts.
They have parties. They eat lunch. They wonder if they should slip away. They say they can’t: not if that means abandoning him.
How sympathetic they are, in their plight.
Then they do something to remind you who they are.
And oh, shit, you’re reminded: these are the Nazis we’re talking about.
If the movie has anybody whose humanity has been completely eaten away, it’s Josef and Magda Goebbels, who are just as chillingly unknowable here as they are in most screen retellings of these events. They figure in one of the most horrifying film sequence in years: Magda’s murder, by poison, of her drugged children, who she does not want living in a world without national socialism. Over a period of several minutes, she goes to each child in her large brood, feeds them cyanide, then makes them clamp down. Each child shudders and lies still. She remains dry-eyed as she leaves the room, refuses an embrace from her husband, and goes off to play one last game of solitaire.
This is also our species.
The movie is not confined to the bunker. There are major story threads taking place in the ruins above: including one involving a ten-year-old boy who considers it his duty to help the soldiers save Berlin, and the father who wants him to stop. The scenes set in the doomed city, which clearly depict hundreds of wounded huddling together in the wreckage of buildings, while overworked doctors perform battlefield amputations, are like snapshots of hell. When Hitler dies, the movie still has another forty minutes left to go. The larger picture provides the context for any viewers unfamiliar with history: this is what that kind, gentlemanly figure with the hair-trigger temper has reduced this country to.
DOWNFALL is actually the second movie to humanize Hitler in a manner defensible to thinking people. The other, MAX, took place immediately after the first World War and involved a half-mad, ranting Hitler befriended by a Jewish art dealer who almost succeeds in making him give up politics for painting. That film was interesting, but only on the level of an intriguing failure. Its Hitler was so off-putting as a young man that there’s no reason Max would have anything to do with him. This one works on the level of a genuine masterpiece, and it raises the immediate question of whether it should. Is there anything to be accomplished by humanizing these monsters? Making sympathetic figures out of those who see that the cause is lost, and urge the Fuhrer to spare what remains of Berlin? Even in making us fret about the fate of sweet, naive young Traudl Junge, who was after all only a secretary with no real power, but who enthusiastically worked for one of the most evil men ever to walk the planet? Who at one point refused his offer to release her from duty, and stayed by his side until the very last day, even planning to join him in death?
The answer is yes.
It’s too easy to see these people as less than human.
As aliens. Others.
But they were human. In a sad, horrifying way, they may have telling representatives of our sometimes sad, horrifying species. They were corrupt and they were hateful and they were evil incarnate, but they were human, as prone to moments of folksy warmth as those who just as blindly plunge their own nations into lesser cataclysms. We’ll never understand them if we never understand that. The trick lies in seeing what they are as well as what they’ve done. And what they might do, if we fall for their slogans again.
As is only appropriate, DOWNFALL ends with closing notes detailing the number of people who died in World War Two, the number specifically killed in concentration camps, and the fates of the dramatis personae. It’s stunning to note just how many of the people who spent some of those last few days in the Bunker survived (sometimes in freedom) for decades after the deaths of the regime’s victims. They lived until the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. Junge herself survived well into the new century, where just before her death she allowed herself to be interviewed, at length, for a film aptly called BLIND SPOT. The very last shot of the film features this now very old woman, talking about how she used to tell herself that she couldn’t have known the scale of the Fuhrer’s crimes, and how she continued to deny her own complicity until she passed a monument to a fallen resistance leader her own age. “It was always possible to find out,” she says. She just didn’t let herself know. She had too much affection for the smiling man with the friendly dog.