Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Patricia Ducey

Downfall is the fictionalized account of Hitler’s last days in the bunker adapted from the memoirs of his secretary, Traudl Junge, also the subject of a documentary, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary completed right before she passed away in 2002.

We first meet Frau Junge as she and a gaggle of giggling young women audition for the post of private secretary to the failing Fuhrer. It strains credulity that this bunch in 1942 had no sense of foreboding or that Frau Junge would type away for three more years without suspecting something very wrong was happening, even as her Fuhrer leads them all underground, safe from the gathering storm of the Soviet army. Blind spot, indeed.

Alexandra Maria Lara’s Traudl, however, is believable as a wide-eyed innocent who keeps the lid shut tight on her own doubts. In one scene we watch that willful denial crack, though. After witnessing Hitler unhinge and explode into a rant, she reaffirms her unwavering loyalty, even as she forces back the vomit rising in her throat. Her unconscious knows what’s going on even if she cannot, or will not, admit it out loud.

Bruno Ganz, the penultimate German New Wave actor, offers a fresh if awkward portrayal of the end stage Fuhrer. His Hitler is Traudl’s Hitler, a kindly uncle clucking Goebbels’ children under their chins and complimenting the cook on her ravioli. Again we learn of his devotion to his dogs; the audience chuckled appreciatively as Eva voiced her longing to send the Aryan Super Dog to his maker herself. The camera focuses on Hitler’s palsied left hand and his shuffling gait, as if his disintegrating body might expose something hidden or complex--yet Hitler was mad for all to see.

The real revelations of the film are the assorted courtiers, especially the women. Besides Lara’s Traudl, Juliane Kohler as Eva Braun excels as the inveterate party girl who cheers up her companions underneath Berlin with magnums of champagne and her own fatalistic courage. Corrina Harfouch as Magda, Goebbels’ icy wife, who murders her own children because they are “too good for a world without National Socialism,” illuminates a little known character in the Nazi saga.

Late in the movie, someone in the audience shouted, “You jerk!” towards the screen. At first I didn’t know who he was yelling at, then decided it must have been to Hitler, because “jerk” describes exactly the Hitler of this film—a small man, a vulgarian, who parlayed a few accidents of history and his own limited charisma to ride to the top of a country a bit smaller than Montana. Easy enough. His downfall began when a tremulous world decided to fight back. His story and that of his pathological, greedy and stupid hangers-on never rises to the level of tragedy, for their comfortable suicides were far better than they deserved.

This film was the first Hitler film made by German producers for German audiences in that country’s continuing struggle to come to terms with its past. Yet despite all the fascinating details of life in the bunker, history is more than “one damn thing after the other” and the film falls eventually flat. Perhaps the obsession with accountability and wearying apologia has simply run its course. Or perhaps we are ready to understand the Traudls who enable the monsters. She and her “youthful followers” were simply nice, middle class people who could not comprehend the horrors beyond the hype and gaiety of Berlin. After all, isn’t that how all World War II movies start, with the nice family saying don’t worry, it can’t happen here?

-- Patricia Ducey

Copyright Web del Sol, 2005

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