Downfall: masterly if flawed fictional account of Adolf Hitler’s last days

Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall” (2004)

This is an incredible and masterly fictional dramatisation of the last 14 days in the life of Adolf Hitler over April – May, 1945, during the dying days of Nazi Germany and the Second World War in Europe. “Downfall” captures a whole world, an era, going down in flames, chaos and desperation as the Soviet army invades Berlin, leaving death and ruin in its wake, the German armed forces collapse for lack of manpower, supplies and coherent strategy, and civilians and soldiers alike scrabble and fight over food and shelter in the destroyed capital. While this is happening, the remnants of Hitler’s regime hide in an underground bunker where Hitler himself, aged and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, persists in his fantasies of leading Germany to victory and creating a new glorious Berlin, a citadel of (kitsch) art and culture, as the country burns around him.

History texts and documentaries can give us the blow-by-blow details of Nazi Germany’s death but what they can’t do is give a psychological portrait of Hitler and his closest supporters like Eva Braun, architect Albert Speer and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda. The film focusses on the characters of these people by structuring itself around the viewpoint (in part) of Hitler’s young personal secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who appears as a passive observer doing her job and staying steadfast to Hitler to his dying day and beyond; any qualms she might have about her boss’s state of mind and his ways of thinking, she suppresses for the sake of duty and devotion to a man who has always treated her with fatherly kindness and gentleness. Skilfully woven into the drama is a parallel story of a fictional child soldier called Peter who represents both Germany’s manic desperation to fight the war to the very end, exemplified by the recruitment of himself and his young friends in the Hitler Youth as soldiers, and Germany’s hope for renewal as he survives the war and finds a companion in Junge herself after he discovers his parents have killed themselves in despair. Other parallel stories include those of the Goebbels, Braun, Speer, the army doctor Schenck and various military officers, all of whom are torn in some way between what they believe or think is right and wrong, what they know they should do and their loyalty to Hitler.

Students of psychology keen to know how people cope and behave in extreme situations in a virtual prison will find a feast here: Hitler (Bruno Ganz) zings constantly between denial and flights into fantasy – he imagines moving armies into positions to crush the Reds – on the one hand, and tirades about the supposed incompetence of advisors and officers he thought he could trust, and how the German people deserve to die for their weaknesses and inability to uphold and witness for Nazi ideals. He issues ever more eccentric orders to execute competent men and, as news of Soviet encroachment on the bunker comes, makes arrangements to marry Eva and to commit suicide with her. The retreat into fantasy as a way of coping with reality, staving off despair and covering up one’s own incompetence and responsibility for failures by blaming others and wishing evil on them becomes understandable. By doing this though, Hitler becomes a degraded and contemptible human being. We see, through Ganz’s intense and electrifying performance, the kind of “monster” Hitler is: egotistic, self-pitying, volatile and unstable, brutal, charming, kind and affectionate in an empty sort of way. His best friend is his dog Blondi yet he orders the dog killed in a pitiless manner.

Also as extreme and puzzling is the behaviour of people like the Goebbels and various minor characters who regard Hitler as a god and have such faith in his leadership and abilities that they’d rather die with him than live. Normally we’d admire people who place honour, integrity and devotion to ideals above personal interest and ambitions but what can we make of intelligent and capable people like Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) who has such a sincere and child-like if deluded faith in Hitler and Nazism that, unable to imagine a different Germany, kills all her children? What background and psychological history does she have, that on the one hand she idolises Hitler and clings to him in a way at once shocking and demeaning of herself, and on the other moulds her children into perfect little Nazi angels only to despatch of them in a steely and cold-blood manner?

The acting performances, particularly those of Ganz and Harfouch, are strong and riveting. The film loses some spark after Hitler and Braun’s deaths but the knowledge that the Goebbels plan to die and take their six children with them sustains tension to the end. My main gripe is the “happy” ending in which Junge and Peter cycle on a bike away from Berlin through a forest.  For me, this ending is a cop-out to cheer up audiences; the reality is that several of the women who left the bunker along with Junge were captured, raped and brutalised by Soviet Army soldiers. It’s possible Junge was raped and tortured as well though she did not mention if she was raped or not in her memoir, on which “Downfall” is partly based.

The film’s narrow focus on Hitler’s last 14 days, while it demonstrates the mind-set of Hitler and his followers, doesn’t say anything about the kind of society or psychological culture of Germany that allowed Hitler and his National Socialist party to achieve power originally, maintain that power while junking democratic processes and crushing opposition, industrialise the country and restore its pride only to take it into a prolonged war that destroyed its manufacturing achievements. For all his charm and charisma, and his promises, there’s no way Hitler and the Nazis could have just taken over Germany the way they did without support from most major institutions, like the armed forces, industry, the churches and other prominent organisations and individuals. If “Downfall” had included a few flashbacks to Hitler’s early days as a campaigning politician, bidding for the position of Chancellor in the early 1930’s, viewers might have got some idea of how Germany was seduced into trading a failing democracy for a psychopathic dictatorship. It could be said though that we have history text-books and documentaries to give us that background!

As it is, “Downfall” is a significant cinematic achievement which humanises Hitler and his followers without glorifying them; if anything, the movie shows how degraded, pitiful and even stupid they make themselves. Though the film isn’t a completely accurate historical record – some characters like Fegelein and Schenk are shown sympathetically – it demonstrates effectively the horrors of war, the suffering of ordinary people and the indifference of politicians to that suffering. The psychology of individuals like Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels shown provide some insight into the thinking and actions of people caught up in a situation that’s rapidly and chaotically spinning out of their control and beyond their understanding.

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