fortunate for leaders that men do not think."
Perhaps ultimately, men think only of their
own survival, or if that's barely an option in a bunker
in late April 1945, the fastest way to die. There were two
moments in Oliver Hirschbiegel's extraordinary film of Hitler's
last hours that caught my breath. How often does today's
cinema do that? They were, perhaps, moments well documented
on the historical record but even then, they were barely
believable as acts carried out by flesh and blood human
beings. Sitting here in a few hours of hindsight, I still
balk at the reality of the events. How could a father, or
a mother, believe in a world vision so wholeheartedly, so
wretchedly that they would be willing to kill their own
children to 'protect' them from an uncertain future?
In Downfall, Bruno Ganz, giving a mesmerising
performance as Austrian painter turned malevolent dictator,
Adolf Hitler, underlines his theory of natural selection
- that being the fittest, the strongest is the ultimate
and only natural road to survival. 'No compassion,' was
his war-cry. Surely one of the first rules of any society
that wants to propagate its ideals and culture is 'don't
murder the children'? In a scene as chilling as it could
be, a mother administers, at first, a bitter sleeping draft
and then a poison to her six children and watches them die,
one after the other. And the audience is spared no detail.
It is a direction coup of extraordinary power that the signifier
of their death is the baring of their feet (the blanket
to cover their faces being too short to cover both ends
of the body). The children's father, standing outside, is
an accomplice, a man who could not bear to do what he also
believed was necessary. It's not that heartening to know
that they too die soon afterwards at their own hands. It's
all the more horrific, that sense of awful premeditation.
Once they knew that Hitler would fall, their idealised future
fell with him and so the Goebbels decided to exterminate
their own children rather than face a future without Nazism
at its core.
least two people I have spoken to since seeing the movie
said that they could not watch a film in which children
are murdered by their parents. I understand their reluctance.
This gross act of barbarism in the name of Nazi purity is
probably the most heinous act I have ever seen on a cinema
screen but if it really did happen, in the context of Downfall,
the movie, then it must be shown. I don't know if what the
real Frau Goebbels did after the six executions was true
(she shuffled cards and played Solitaire in this version
of horrific history - how much more 'solitaire' could she
be?) but her hideous act was so contemptible, you just sat
there disbelieving. You played with a hope that she might
burn in a very special level of hell. And Hitler called
her 'the bravest mother in Germany' in the movie.
Downfall charts the end of the 3rd Reich, the end of Hitler, Eva
Braun and the most savage, monstrous regime of the 20th
century. It doesn't flinch or blink at what must have been
a powerfully difficult subject for any German film-maker
to take on. All credit to producer/writer Bernd Eichinger
and the director who face up to every fact and presents
each with no fanfare nor unequivocal sympathy or prejudgement.
Here are the monsters of history. How much humanity can
we, the audience, impose upon them?
black before a single image, we hear an old woman's voice
describing her time with Hitler. We don't know who she is
yet. In a short introductory flashback, we are introduced
to Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), the young woman
who will become Hitler's secretary. Hitler warms to her
based on her looks (one assumes) and where she hails from.
Her first attempt at typing for him results in gibberish.
He is kind enough to give her a second chance. We then slam
forward to the last hours in Berlin before the Russians'
advance strangles the Nazis for good. Seen through Traudl's
naïve point of view, Hitler is a sick man fighting
for the good name and honour of Germany. She buys into all
this, never questioning but in her defence; you are a normal
twenty something in Europe. How could anyone suspect what
a cadre of officers urged by Hitler was capable of? There
was no precedent for this wickedness so therefore no basis
on which to suspect. How can one be guilty of not thinking
true 'every woman' status clicks into place after she discovers
what is to become of the Goebbels children. No explicit
word is spoken, no words for this act of ultimate barbarism.
Her reaction is perfect; profound, uncomprehending, physical
shock. At that moment it's as if she had been placed next
to Hitler after just being born. There is no understanding
of such cruelty in her eyes. She is the filter through which
we can watch this movie, the 'every woman' character who
holds our morality and ordinariness up against the selection
of inhuman monsters led by a non-smoking, teetotal vegetarian.
One of the most monstrous was the man standing outside the
door while his children were murdered by his wife: Joseph
Poisoned Dwarf' as the Allies knew him is cast as a pinched
faced shark, a sleek pitch black haired predator with eyes
darker than any great white. The actor, Ulrich Matthes,
is a casting coup. He doesn't have to act. His mere presence
is enough to suggest the unending levels of cruelty he propagated.
He sheds a few tears too and coming from that face, you
do not believe one salty drop. You also got the sense that
if this man ever smiled, the whole film would fall. His
wife, played by Corinna Harfouch, is colder than the deepest
fish, steelier than any blade. Her eldest child can sense
something is wrong and fights against the sleeping draft.
It takes two adults to force feed it to her. It's horrific
to see children die by their mother's hand but it's twice
as horrific to see a child struggle against what she could
barely comprehend. This is my mother. She is killing me.
other moment that affected me was a simple cut. To what,
I won't reveal but I will say that the fall of Nazism was
accompanied by a huge number of suicides and I can only
conclude that these men (for they were all men) knew exactly
what they were a part of. Death by their own hand was a
way of avoiding execution, global revulsion and being hunted
for the rest of their lives. Hitler's architect and close
friend, Albert Speer, is the only man within Hitler's inner
circle who comes out of the movie with any shred of dignity
or decency. Played stoically by Heino Ferch, he admits to
his leader that he disobeyed orders of great cruelty and
actively did the opposite. Here is a man who didn't have
the strength (as no single man had) to question and halt
the atrocities but on his own terms he did what he could
from the Nazi inner circle. He later claims he knew very
little and the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal
showed him some clemency (the twenty years of imprisonment
type of clemency) but Speer's reputation as a 'good Nazi'
is still in debate over twenty four years after his death
in London in 1981.
late April 1945, Hitler was a shadow of his former, ebullient
self. Ravaged by what's now believed to be Parkinson's Disease,
he prowls the bunker, spine folded forward, one hand shaking
behind his back. His downfall also brought on a sense of
denial that may have been interpreted as stress-induced
madness. He certainly wasn't listening to his generals,
all of whom he accused of being traitors simply by dint
of their losing ground to the Russians. One of his generals
(whom Hitler sentences to death in a fit of pique) marches
to the leader's side and demands to be told why. Hitler
is impressed by the man's fortitude and bravery and hands
him command of another doomed regiment. He deadpans that
as a choice between the two he'd rather have been shot.
This line of dialogue sums up the futility of the Nazi's
position at this crucial moment in the Allies' push for
Braun (Juliane Köhler) is well known as Hitler's mistress
and in the final hours, wife. But like Traudl, you get the
impression that she knows nothing about what the Nazis were
really capable of. She's a freewheeler but when the crunch
comes she also stands by her man until the very end. Her
determination to go down dancing is touching if a little
inappropriate as the bombs blast in the windows. Her friendship
with Traudl is sincere (like an older sister to an impressionable
younger sibling) and to see the two of them 'nip out of
the bunker' for a cigarette is amusing even if they do have
to come straight back in again as the shelling starts. But
despite the horror and the gloom, the director chooses to
signal Hitler's own suicide with a visual gag. After the
gunshot, several soldiers and generals all light up, something
verboten in the bunker while Der Fürhrer was still
the bunker's residents have either left or gone to hell,
the Russians arrive. It's a testament to the film's gripping
nature that the fate of the higher echelon of Nazi officers
is not the core of the film. It is Traudl. Wearing a Nazi
jacket trying to downplay her femininity (difficult as she
has a beautiful face) she moves through the Russian ranks
hoping to escape by virtue of her sex. How or if she manages
and what help comes from a tragic sub-plot of the film I
all, Downfall is an extraordinarily assured
work. It sensitively treats a sensational subject with restraint
and detachment. It manages to place a crucial moment in
history at arm's length but close enough that we can smell
the cordite and the grim stench of the bloody operating
rooms. Any closer and it would have become exploitative.
I can't imagine a better handling of the subject matter
and let's hope it's gone some way to rid the German people
of some uncomfortable baggage. After all, monsters grow
in all climes, countries and circumstances…