Out Like a Lamb

The chilling oddity of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall is not limited to the fact that, six decades after the end of World War II, it’s the first mainstream German film to grapple with Adolf Hitler. Set, for the most part, in the underground Berlin bunker where the Nazi dictator spent his last days, this is a grim and sometimes guilt-ridden examination of the Third Reich in collapse. But it’s also weirdly sympathetic, and not just to the peripheral figures in Hitler’s twisted world.

Downfall doesn’t hold any brief for, say, the lunatic ideologue Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) or his icy wife, Magda (Corinna Harfouch), who murders her six children because, as she puts it, “The world after National Socialism is no longer worth living in.” And it casts a cold eye on most of the creepy visionaries and brainwashed sycophants hiding downstairs with the boss as the Red Army swarms over the ruined city. But the film certainly means to give us a “complete,” full-blooded portrait of der führer on his last legs. As portrayed by the surpassing German actor Bruno Ganz, this Hitler is, at 56, terminally decrepit and ferociously nuts. But he’s not just a ruthless madman who boasts about “confronting the Jews”; he’s also a stooped geezer who compliments the chef on the plate of spinach she’s just brought him while his palsied left hand twitters behind his back. But does Hitler deserve human shading?

In defense of Hirschbiegel’s approach, it can be argued that the vast Nazi atrocities, though grotesque, must be regarded as the acts of real men and women, lest we write off the war and the Holocaust as the aberrant behavior of otherworldly monsters who were completely unlike, well, ourselves. At the same time, the grudging sympathy we are supposed to feel here for people such as Hitler’s delusional girlfriend, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), or his faithful stenographer, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), has to be counterbalanced by an equal dose of contempt. But we don’t shed a tear when they go to their doom. Junge, who was revealed in fuller light by the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (she died the same year), becomes a central figure in Downfall, too — because she was privy to the last-ditch utterances of some key Third Reichians and because the filmmakers mean to make her the troubled voice of the German people at large. “I was not an enthusiastic Nazi,” she declares at the start of these 149 minutes. “But I couldn’t say no.”

As the Hamburg-born Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Bernd Eichinger (working from a book by historian Joachim Fest) would have it, there were some who could say no, especially as the end drew near. It’s hard to swallow, but the moviemakers presume to conjure up some local heroes — a bulletheaded S.S. doctor (Christian Berkel) slaving away to save lives in an operating room, an upright old Nazi general (Michael Mendl) who insists that the madness must stop, an innocent 12-year-old soldier trying to hold off the Russians all by himself. The inescapable implication here is that the war was essentially a tragedy of German suffering. Really? Tell that to the families of the death-camp victims.

Categories: Movies