Like many Westerners, I have looked with judgmental horror at the political strategy of suicide that radical Islamics now routinely employ as a weapon of terror. In Israel and Iraq, in America on 9/11, fanatics have killed themselves in service of a cause never entirely clear. What kind of sick madness, I have often wondered, does radical Islam foster that would lead its adherents to indulge such hatred that they would sacrifice their own lives and those of their young? And then as I watched Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, I was reminded (as I shouldn't have needed to be) that self-destructive violent fanaticism is hardly an invention of those who call God Allah. In uncomfortably recent history, we in the West have produced Jim Jones and, infinitely worse, the murderous madmen of National Socialism.
Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language film, Downfall is the story of Adolf Hitler's last days. Hunkering down in a bunker outfitted with fine china and a vast liquor cabinet, surrounded by servants and sycophants, Hitler (Bruno Ganz in a brilliant performance) refuses to surrender a war that was lost on the Russian plains and Normandy beaches. Berlin is surrounded. The German air force is destroyed. The Nazi army now consists of old men and children. Allied air raids and Russian artillery rain death on a civilian population that is starving and extensively homeless. But Hitler orders his generals to fight on, and, indicative of the national insanity that brought Hitler to power, they do so.
Downfall is told from the point of view of Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), whose long, subsequent life of self-recrimination was profiled in the 2002 documentary, Blind Spot. Some controversy has oddly surrounded this film over whether it portrays Hitler sympathetically. It doesn't, not even remotely. He is portrayed as a human being who loves his dog and is capable of small acts of courtesy to his subordinates. But he is also portrayed as a meglomaniacal monster who has attracted to his company other human beings who are less monstrous than he only because they possess less power.
An unthinking viewer, I suppose, might find something heroic in the German army's willingness to fight on in the face of certain defeat and almost certain death. But with regard to Hitler's followers, the point of the film is that they were loyal to their Fuhrer and not to their country's people. By following Hitler's orders to refuse to surrender, they were complicit in inflicting continuing and pointless suffering on the civilian population caught in harm's way. Downfall illustrates that Nazism was a death cult all along. At some point in his diseased mind, Hitler may have planned merely to enslave the world's Jews, but once he could see he would not rule the world after all, he ordered the "final solution" that sent 6 million Jewish souls to the gas chambers. Here he declares his pride in this program of mass murder.
To the end, Hitler suffers from an astonishing case of psychotic myopia. He is the chancellor of Germany, but the defeat of the German army, the destruction of German cities, the deaths of millions of Germans are only indirectly among his concerns. On the one hand he is delusional, gathering his generals around him and issuing orders about attacks he has no troops to mount. He appoints a new commander for an air force that no longer exists. He promises surprise relief from secret divisions that march only in the recesses of his poisoned mind. And on the other hand he rages against his cruel personal fate. He has not failed; he has been betrayed. Here Hitler is at his most despicable. He will not shed one tear for innocent women and children who die in the needless last days of the war, he declares. For they are getting what they deserve for failing to rise to the greatness of his leadership.
And Hitler's villainous self-absorption is fueled by the idolatry of his followers who do not depose him even as he leads them all to the gates of hell. After he commits suicide, many of his followers do the same. In the film's most chilling sequence, Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), wife of propaganda minister Josef Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), kills her own children rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Other parents do the same. And even after Hitler's death, with the Russian enemy within gunshot, Secret Service hit men hunt down and murder old Berliners who have avoided conscription and inevitable death to impede the Russian advance for what would have been measured in seconds. All of this is unfathomable evil, and Downfall doesn't hesitate in so portraying it. But it is human evil, and it has already been copied, and as long as we walk this earth, we must remain on guard, for always it will lurk in the shadows around us.
- Bruno Ganz offers a convincing Adolf Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel's Oscar-nominated film, Downfall.