EVEN WHEN I GO TO THE MOVIES I AM RARELY ABLE TO SET aside my social and political concerns. And as I write this essay on film, I am worried about the increasingly bitter partisanship in Congress. I am dismayed that a Republican-Party-controlled House of Representatives is willing to change its ethics rules to shield its leader, Tom DeLay, from investigation and possible prosecution. I am offended that in his determination to court the hard "Christian" right, Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a medical doctor, is willing to offer medical opinions in the Terry Schiavo case contradicting those of doctors who had actually examined her. Most notably, I am concerned that the Republican majority in the Senate, in a fierce determination to exert its will, is poised to stifle the voice of the minority by eliminating the filibuster and that Senator Frist, a presumed 2008 presidential candidate, has joined the right-wing Family Research Council in alleging that use of the filibuster is "an act against people of faith." This last outrages me as an American, a Democrat, and a person of faith. One might not think these concerns as relevant to the films I discuss below, but they are.
Like many Westerners, I have looked with judgmental horror at the political strategy of suicide that radical Islamists now routinely employ as a weapon of terror. In Israel and Iraq, and 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 some adherents to indulge such hatred that they would sacrifice their own lives and those of their young? But as I watched Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, I was reminded (as I shouldn't have needed to be) that self-destructive violent extremism is hardly an invention of those who call God Allah. In the waning days of World War II, the Japanese produced their kamikaze, of course. Two millennia earlier, the Jewish zealots at Masada ended their lives en masse rather than surrender to the Roman legions at their gates. And in uncomfortably recent history, we in the Christian West have produced Jim Jones and, infinitely worse, the murderous, monstrous true believers of National Socialism.
The history of Nazi aggression and its attempt to exterminate the world's Jews has been well established and addressed repeatedly in various cinematic treatments both documentary and dramatic. We have learned that Adolf Hitler and his inner circle were even more devoted to genocide than they were to world domination. Thus, as illustrated in both James Moll's documentary, The Last Days, and Istvan Szabo's drama, Sunshine, Nazi troops were diverted from trying to halt the Russian advance on the eastern front and from the defense of the European coast in the weeks leading up to D-Day in order to round up Hungarian Jews for shipment to concentration camp gas chambers. As Hitler remarks about himself in Downfall, the infamous "Final Solution" would be his enduring legacy. But in all the chronicling of Nazi evil, less attention has been paid to the ultimately suicidal bent of its fanaticism. For Hitler himself and an astonishing number of his most devoted followers, the operative motto was a perversion of Patrick Henry's defiant call to arms: "Give me triumph or give me death."
Two recent films look more closely at the self-absorption of the Nazi inner circle. Hirschbiegel's Downfall dramatizes events in Hitler's underground Berlin headquarters during the last days of Der Fuhrer's life. Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer's documentary Blind Spot—Hitler's Secretary, meanwhile, focuses on the experiences of Traudl Junge, a young Bavarian who took dictation and typed letters for Hitler, who lived in close proximity to him, who saw his true nature bitterly and perhaps despicably late, but who was unwilling to sacrifice her life for her boss's glory. Blind Spot serves as a critical source for Downfall, and footage from the documentary appears in the closing minutes of the drama.
Based on books by Joachim Fest and Melissa Muller with Traudl Junge and written for the screen by Bernd Eichinger, Downfall was a commercial hit in its native Germany and in this country landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It is the story of Adolf Hitler's nightmarish refusal to surrender long after the slightest hope remained for victory or even a negotiated peace. Hunkering down in a bunker outfitted with fine china, crystal goblets, and a vast liquor cabinet (for his attendants—Hitler, himself, didn't drink), surrounded by servants and sycophants, Hitler (Bruno Ganz in a brilliant performance) refuses to let his troops lay down their arms in a war that was lost on the Normandy Beaches and Russian Plains one and two years earlier. As the film opens, Berlin is surrounded, the German air force is destroyed, and save for surviving generals and other high-ranking officers, 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 seeking refuge in rubble. But Hitler orders his generals to fight on, and indicative of the national insanity that brought Hitler to power, they do so. An unthinking viewer, I suppose, might find something heroic in the German army's willingness to stand and resist 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 brutal deaths of six million Jewish souls. Here he declares his sneering pride in the Final Solution's program of mass murder.
To the end, hitler suffers from a case of psychotic myopia astonishing even today. He is the Chancellor of Germany, but the defeat of the German army, the destruction of German cities, and 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. He announces an aerial assault by one thousand jets that have been designed but never built. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, Hitler studies an elaborate scale model for an imaginary Berlin of the future and counsels those with him that the bombs of his enemies will simply make his grand rebuilding project easier and quicker to accomplish. For a decade he had managed to transform his will into reality, and apparently he can't understand that he can no longer do so.
On the other hand, when he acknowledges that the end of his rule is no longer measured even in weeks, but in days and hours, he rages against his cruel personal fate. He has not failed; he has been betrayed. His generals are fools and traitors; his soldiers are cowards and turncoats. Here he is at his most despicable. Told that the defense of Berlin has cost the lives of twenty thousand young officers, he retorts: "What are young men for?" He is beseeched to evacuate women and children from the war zone to the country in the scant window of safety that remains, but he refuses. Compassion is for weaklings, he declares. He will not shed one tear for innocent women and children who die in the needless last days of the war. They are getting what they deserve for failing to rise to the greatness of his leadership. If Hitler and his vision cannot endure, then all of Germany should perish along with him. The German people should pay for their inadequacy and weakness with their blood and that of their children.
Hitler's villainous self-absorption is fueled by the idolatry of followers who do not depose him even as he leads them all to the gates of hell. Finally, the dying moves inside the bunker. Hitler's doctors dispense cyanide tablets and instructions on how to use them. Der Fuhrer doesn't want to be thought unmanly for using a pill, but is afraid he will suffer if he shoots himself. Finally, he decides to shoot himself in the two seconds of life remaining after biting the poisoned capsule. After he commits suicide, many of his followers do the same. Soldiers in the field fire pistols into their mouths or chests rather than hand them over to Russian troops. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes, looking like a demon fresh from the fires of Pandemonium) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) follow Hitler into self-inflicted death, but not before Magda delivers the film's most chilling sequence.
The Goebbels have brought their entire brood of beautiful blond children into the bunker with them. Looking like poster figures for Hitler Youth, the six youngsters laugh and cavort and sing patriotic songs, evidently oblivious that the world their parents have wrought lies dying in agony in the city above their heads. Before bed one night, with the help of a Nazi doctor serving as her facilitator and assistant, Magda makes all her children take a powerful sleeping potion. Later, she returns, pries open their unconscious mouths, places the cyanide between their incisors and forces their jaws to bite down on their doom. She would rather see them dead, she says, than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Elsewhere in the death spiral, other parents do the same.
And even after Hitler's death, with the Russian enemy within gunshot, with German generals, finally freed of Der Fuhrer's orders, desperately trying to arrange a cease fire and surrender, the true believers of the SS 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. And thus we are reminded, a mad man can only rule when he can convince other mad men to do his bidding.
In Downfall we meet Traudl Junge (Alexandria Maria Lara) when she is hired by Hitler after a typing audition in 1942. She appears in the film thereafter as a witness to activities in the bunker where she develops a kind of little sister relationship with Hitler's mistress Eva Braun (Julian Kohler), who knows the end is upon them and waxes between melancholy resignation and champagne-fueled hysteria. In the drama, Junge is neither a blind follower nor an entirely innocent bystander, and that's just the way she portrays herself in the documentary which was filmed in 2001 when Junge was eighty-one. She died of cancer a year later.
Fundamentally, Heller and Schmiderer's Blind Spot— Hitler's Secretary is an edited conversation with Traudl Junge who tells the story of working and living with the Nazi Fuhrer in his various headquarters, and ultimately in his Berlin bunker. The man Junge describes is polite, soft-spoken, gentle, immensely charismatic, utterly delusional, ultimately paranoid, and monstrously narcissistic. The last three of those descriptions are rendered convincingly in Hirschbiegel's Downfall. Junge illustrates Hitler's personality in a story about his relationship with his beloved dog, Blondi. All who surrounded Hitler knew of his pride and affection for Blondi. (In Downfall, Eva Braun complains that Hitler was more fond of the dog than of her.) He bragged about the tricks Blondi could perform. He kept her by his side most of the time. She even slept in his bedroom in the bunker. Then, as the Russians closed in, Hitler fed Blondi cyanide. He killed his dog, not to spare her from any of the ravages that might follow defeat, not to spare her from hunger or deprivation or disease. Rather, he had begun to suspect that the cyanide Heinrich Himmler had supplied for Hitler's own suicide might be fake. So the Fuhrer, who had already sacrificed his entire nation to his own vanity, killed his dog to make sure that his supply of suicide tablets would work when the time came.
Junge was twenty-two in 1942 when she was employed as one of Hitler's four private secretaries. She doesn't know if she was chosen because she typed and took dictation well or because she was young and pretty. She does remember with abiding shame that she was enthralled by Hitler and breathless with eagerness to work for him. She saw her job as a chance to associate with greatness. Hitler's work habits required that all of his secretaries live in his own compound and make themselves available twenty-four hours a day. Rather than labor in an office, they remained in their apartments until they were summoned to perform some task. Among their duties were to take tea with Hitler every afternoon and to dine with him at lunch and dinner. The nature of their close association might lead one to wonder about sexual obligations of the sort that other such charismatic madmen as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh extracted from their followers, but Junge admits to no such connections and wonders if Hitler even had much of a sexual relationship with Eva Braun. Downfall makes the same insinuation, and, in fact, when Hitler kisses Braun after she declares her loyalty to him, Bruno Ganz plays the scene as if he's just discovered her presence at his side.
Junge stayed with Der Fuhrer through his reversal of fortune in World War II, and all the way to his suicide. She recalls with dismay her joy when Hitler survived an assassination attempt by one of his own generals. She remembers the details of her years with Hitler with remarkable clarity and expresses her memories with unusual vividness. We gather from her comments that she spent the fifty-six years after Hitler's death trying to come to terms with her having liked and admired a man she subsequently came to understand as one of the most evil human beings ever to have trod the earth. Junge's willingness to challenge, chastise, and examine herself is repeatedly demonstrated as she sits in front of Schmiderer's camera and submits to ten hours of Heller's interviews. Though interrogated but never prosecuted after the war by allied jurists and though a witness in four earlier documentaries, it is only in Blind Spot and in her posthumous memoir that the entirety of her story emerges. Heller believes that Junge finally talked publicly because she knew she was dying.
THE FILMMAKERS' STRATEGY FOR THIS DOCUMENTARY IS boldly stark. As anyone knows from watching the History Channel, voluminous archival film footage exists for showing the places and events that Junge describes. They accessed none of it. The camera always remains on Junge's face to capture the swirl of emotion she feels as she tells her story. In a strikingly novel follow-up, Heller shows Junge footage of his earlier interviews with her and encourages her to comment. She is obviously uncomfortable, pronounces herself banal, and wonders how she could ever have been so blind, so brain-washed with admiration, to have stored such recollections in her memory bank. This technique serves as a perfect metaphor for the entirety of this film and the bulk of Junge's life, looking back at herself with dismay and harsh judgment.
Traudl Junge was raised by her divorced mother under strained economic circumstances. And she's almost certainly right that Hitler was a father figure for her. But recognizing that fact about her youthful self provides her no comfort. She was not educated beyond high school, but she is obviously highly intelligent and much more articulately introspective than most people. Her eyes began finally to open during the days in the bunker when Hitler began to rage against international Jewish conspirators and the failure of the German people to be strong enough to realize his vision. But she began to see far too late, she believes, and she reveres the memory of a young woman her own age who was captured and executed for serving in the Resistance. And that girl's story is Junge's message for us about the Hitlers who may rise in our midst in the future. Whatever our circumstances, there is no excuse for not recognizing and resisting evil when we see it.
Lessons from the Pit, Part One
When Blind Spot opened in a limited number of American theaters in late 2002 and 2003, it was greeted with critical praise. Some controversy, however, has attended the release of Downfall, with some critics complaining that certain segments of the film portray Hitler sympathetically. These passages, almost entirely, are those that portray Hitler's interaction with Junge and other clerical and domestic underlings and stem directly from Junge's memories, to her enduring horror, of having admired and liked her boss.
New Republic critic Stanley Kauffman has worried that Downfall portrays Hitler and his lieutenants as "consecrated idealists who believed in what they had done and were willing to pay with their lives for their actions." J. Hober took a more flip approach in her Village Voice review but finally dings Downfall as "grimly self-important and inescapably trivializing." David Denby complained in The New Yorker that "the achievement (if that's the right word) of Downfall is to insist that the monster was not invariably monstrous. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did?"
WITH SUCH CRITICAL RESPONSES, I RESPECTFULLY disagree. Strongly. No single film can relate the enormity of evil that Hitler and National Socialism perpetrated on the world, and this film doesn't attempt to do that and can't be faulted for failing to do it. At the same time, there's no doubt that Downfall does portray Hitler as a human being. He was one. Proceeding from Junge's observations, he's a man who appears to love and take delight in his dog, a powerful man who is nonetheless capable of small acts of courtesy to his subordinates. But, in short, so what? Is it sympathetic to say that a man is not a cannibal? Downfall tells us that Hitler was a vegetarian. Will that odd fact make him sympathetic to people who don't eat meat? I think not, for the film also shows us that Hitler was a megalomaniacal monster who attracted to his company other human beings who were less monstrous than he only because they possessed less power. National Socialism was evil, but it was not other worldly evil. It was evil imagined, campaigned for, and executed by human beings. In the half-century since Nazism was stomped into silence, other, lesser tyrants have arisen, from Pol Pot to Saddam Hussein, to practice comparable evil diminished only because more limited in scale. Thus, as long as we walk this earth, we must remain on guard, for always such evil will lurk in the shadows around us.
Lessons from the Pit, Part Two
Let us not forget that Adolf Hitler came to power legitimately. His Nazis were hooligans, but they were elected. And their strategy to consolidate power was first to marginalize and ultimately to silence dissent. I am assiduously not claiming that George W Bush Republicans are fascists. But I worry mightily over their urgent moves to emasculate their opponents and, at the same time, to hold their own leadership beyond public scrutiny. Republican President Nixon may have been guilty of illegal activities, and Democratic President Bill Clinton may have been a sexual scoundrel, but they both yielded to bi-partisan pressure and appointed special prosecutors to investigate their own governments and their own actions. It's hard to imagine the current Republican leadership doing the same.
The maintenance of power is not a good unto itself. And in free societies power must always be limited. That's why we have regular elections, in some cases term limits, and rules that protect the voices of those without power. That's why we have ethics rules. That's why we restrict the ability of the majority to impose its will on a united minority through such measures as the filibuster. Changing rules to protect minority opinions that have been in place for the whole history of our Republic is not, in and of itself, fascism, but it can facilitate the advent of fascism in a way we had best guard against. We should heed the warning that William Butler Yeats delivered to us in his great poem, "The Second Coming," about a time when "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." I may not like the politics of George W Bush and the Republicans who surround his administration, but he is not Hitler, and they are not Nazis. Nonetheless, I think we should all worry, as Yeats does, about some future when a charismatic spokesman for extreme positions, a person able to play upon the fears and resentments of an electoral plurality, a person fond of dogs and polite in his dealings with the Traudl Junges in his or her service, ascends to the American presidency. When that happens, we don't want to have erased the checks and set aside the balances that restrict the power of a single individual or branch of government. Ever we must imagine and protect against that which we consider unimaginable, lest we put at risk that which we hold most dear when that "rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches toward Bethlehem [in our case Pennsylvania, perhaps] to be born."
Fredrick Barton is film critic for Gambit Weekly and author of the novels The El Cholo Feeling Passes, Courting Pandemonium, With Extreme Prejudice, and A House Divided, which won the William Faulkner Prize for fiction. He is Professor of English and Provost at the University of New Orleans.