Downfall

DOWNFALL EXPOSES THE LAST TEN DAYS OF HITLER’S SURREAL WORLD
In Downfall (Der Untergang), director Oliver Hirschbiegel presents a vivid docudrama of the last ten days of the Third Reich, mostly inside Hitler’s Berlin bunker surrounded by the luminaries of the Nazi state. To achieve historical accuracy, the script relies on Joachim Fest’s Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich and Traudl Junge’s Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary (both translated into English in 2004). A touching interview with Junge from an earlier documentary film ends the film, and Alexandra Maria Lara, the actress playing her part in the film, provides a voiceover prologue, which points out that she naïvely agreed to be Hitler’s secretary from early 1942 to April 30, 1945, when Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz) committed suicide. The film pro-vides many events that are familiar to historians and some grisly details that filmviewers may not want to know about. We observe Hitler’s interactions with his top officials and generals, including a confession by Albert Speer (played by Heino Ferch) that he disobeyed the Führer’s order to destroy the architecture of Nazi Berlin and second-in-command Josef Göbbels’s (played by Ulrich Matthes) steadfast devotion to Hitler as the latter refuses to believe military intelligence briefings when the end is near. There is a marriage ceremony in which Hitler and Eva Braun (played by Juliane Köhler) exchange vows, and Göbbels is impassive as his spouse Magda (played by Corinna Harfouch) poisons all their children so that, in her words, they would not grow up in a world without National Socialism. While Russian artillery draws closer, Hitler is still giving out medals for bravery and ordering the execution of traitors. Around him, alcohol is increasingly consumed, and there are even two wild parties. The surreal representation asks a familiar question: Why did Germans, especially those who knew that Hitler was detached from reality, continue to support and to obey him? Although broad academic theories focus on such factors as national culture and state terror, the film suggests several particularistic answers. (1) The primary explanation appears to be groupthink, that is, the human tendency to fear the social consequences of nonconformity. Even though military officers close to Hitler know that he is treating German civilians as well as military personnel as expendable, nobody wants to take responsibility for contradicting Hitler or forming a cabal to kill him. (2) A second factor is paternal-ism, as the women in his life are so infatuated by him that they give no credence to reports about imminent doom. (3) Along with other uncritical adherents of Social Darwinism, Göbbels and Hitler believe that they are doing the world a service by liquidating Jews and so-called inferior peoples, and Hitler is even willing to have all Germans die as a race because he believes that they are being proved inferior when the army is incapable of withstanding the Allied military onslaught. (4) The strength of a code of militaristic ethics can be inferred from the unquestioning obedience of Nazi officers and officials, who follow orders blindly and prefer suicide to cowardly surrender. (5) There is a complete absence of democratic norms; according to Hitler, the discipline of the Bolsheviks will prevail over effete democracies, and no character in the film suggests that decisions should be deliberated within a group before being promulgated. (6) Cognitive dissonance theory certainly applies, as Hitler responds to unpleasant intelligence briefings by giving orders to nonexistent armies and by condemning as traitors those who recognize military realities. In any case, the film cannot be fully deconstructed. The mysteries will never go away, even though the film ends by revealing what happened later to the main characters in the film (who were mostly incarcerated by the Russians, later released, and are now dead). Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated Downfall for best film exposé of 2005, best film raising consciousness about the superiority of democracy, and best film demonstrating the lunacy of war rather than peace. MH