15 June, 2005Issue 4.3EuropeFilm & TVHistoryThe Arts

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The Quiet Centre of The Third Reich

Will Norman

Der Untergang (Downfall)
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s $10 million epic Downfall has been billed as one of the greatest ever war films, but the poster’s misleading tag line will not prepare you for the idiosyncratic presentation of this ground-breaking film. Those expecting nail-biting or stomach-turning battle sequences, heroic feats of strength and determination or dramatic acts of violence will, for the most part, be disappointed. Downfall is set predominantly in Hitler’s bunker, charting in agonising detail the last days of the Nazi regime as Russian forces inexorably advance on Berlin in May 1945. Stylistically, it resembles a stage-play more than an epic, thriving on intimate and claustrophobic set-pieces: Hitler dining heartily with his secretary on the eve of his death; Eva Braun writing a final, chatty letter to a cousin; Joseph Goebbels and his wife calmly orchestrating their family’s group suicide; Hitler’s most loyal followers drunkenly awaiting their fate with cigarettes and schnapps. Downfall is not a film about the Second World War so much as it is a fi lm about endings — and in particular, about dying.

The fact the Downfall takes as its subject the collapse of a regime that continues to haunt European consciousness with an unease that discourages representation has made many viewers and commentators nervous. In a film which aspires to an unsettling naturalism, Hitler and his henchmen are occasionally in danger of appearing human, capable of wounded pride, tenderness, exuberance and even (most dangerously) love. In Britain, at least, there has been a tendency to stow away the complex and unstable idea of Nazism safely in a box labelled ‘Evil’, where it can be occasionally recovered and brandished by guileless journalists and politicians in response to suitably outrageous acts of bigotry, racism and authoritarianism. Hitler has been transformed into a symbolic and absolute embodiment of such wickedness. From Prince Harry’s fancy dress gaffe to Ken Livingston’s ill-judged comparison of a journalist to a concentration-camp guard, the invocation of Nazism has demonstrated its enduring power to outrage and unsettle the public. This film with its unshakeable focus on some of the most hated figures of history, seems to be indicating a difficult truth—that the Nazi hierarchy was made up of extraordinary, pathetic and faintly ridiculous human beings. This last point is particularly striking, for despite (or perhaps because of ) the film’s tragic intensity, the audience contrived to find occasional humour in Hitler’s impotent outbursts and Goebbels’ unhinged theorisings. Such moments depended on a brief separation of what was occurring on the screen from its historical reality, as, for a moment, the world’s most notorious dictator became little more than a senile, ranting geriatric with an increasingly weak grip on reality.

One of Downfall’s most striking features is its insistence on isolating this gap between the unshakeable will and authority of Hitler’s National Socialist ideology and the material reality of its consequences. The bunker in which most of the film is set serves as a metaphor for authority’s innate ignorance of the events for which it is responsible. While Eva Braun sips white wine and Hitler wistfully meditates on non-existent German divisions on their way to save Berlin, the film occasionally cuts to the carnage occurring in the streets only yards from the bunker, where child soldiers are sent out against the Russian tanks with neither adequate arms nor training. Significantly, this truth is inherent to all hierarchical power structures, not just to Nazism. The difference here is that, as every member of the audience knows, our on-screen Hitler and his officers were facing an inevitable end, one dictated by historical truth. Germany lost the war. Hitler was defeated. Weren’t the accounts settled?

This brings us to an important question. Most of the characters are despicable, the plot predictable, Hitler’s ranting grating…and yet the film is utterly mesmerising. Why? Perhaps for its historical value; the screenplay is based on Joachim Fest’s notorious first hand account The Last Days of Hitler. Downfall demands, through its style and sources, to be taken seriously as a historical document. It is not entertaining, but educative, promoting a more thorough ‘understanding’ of history. Perhaps we should ask exactly what kind of understanding this is, for there is little insight here into historical process, no revelations of vital factors affecting the outcome of the war. Perhaps, instead, the film satisfies an innate desire for truth, the thrill of the real—‘is this what really happened to one of history’s most enigmatic figures?’ If this is the case, then the film is reduced to documentary, something akin to the strangely vivid colour footage of Nazi parades and rallies which survived the regime and find their way regularly onto televised history programmes. These films always seem rather disconcerting, occupying an ambiguous space between a securely distant past and an immediate present. In some senses, this seems to be what Downfall aspires to, especially in its pre-credit sequence which details the historical fate of all the characters, as if the film flowed seamlessly from its end into the tides of history. The odd, jarring interview with Heidle Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary, now in her eighties, furthered this effect. Young and attractive in the film, the sight of this elderly lady grappling with her conscience as she attempts to make sense of her past in the light of the present unsettles the viewer as the film ends.

Having witnessed the unambiguous demise of Nazi Germany, an ending enacted not just politically but physically, in the bodily destruction of Hitler, Braun, Goebbels and the rest, are we now to be told that we cannot forget, that the meaning of this film spills out of the cinema into our present-day existence? This, ultimately, is Downfall’s alluring paradox. Meaning depends largely on the formless mass of cultural baggage an audience brings to the cinema. Despite, as its name suggests, its almost fetishist adherence to historical ending and demise, its very existence in the present and its aggressive insistence on authenticity, means that this particular episode of the past remains with us, un-exorcised. As so often with historical films, it tells us more about the place we are in now than the place we were in then. Not many years ago, a film of this kind, especially one made in Germany, would have been unthinkable. Its making demonstrates that the phenomenon of Hitler has begun to be assimilated into a cultural narrative. At the same time, however, its apocalyptic structure stubbornly resists being dragged into flow of time. Cinema by its very nature lays claim to an ability to transcend history at the same as it betrays its historical moment. Downfall revives, just as it simultaneously lays to rest, the memory of Nazism.

Will Norman is a DPhil student in English Literature at New College, Oxford. He writes on Nabokov.