Monday, January 19, 2015

Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004)

      Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004) [D: Oliver Hirschbiegel. Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara]
      A docudrama recreating the last days of Hitler in the bunker under the Reichskanzlei in Berlin, focussing on and based on the memoirs of Traudl Jung, his last secretary, but also using all available documentary evidence to present life within the bunker and in Berlin. The movie has the ring of truth.
      What is clear enough is that people act within the roles and structures they inhabit. The staff follow and obey Hitler partly from habit, partly from personal loyalty, partly because of ideological conviction, and even from a kind of fascinated pity. The reaction to the impending doom varies with to these motivations. As one might expect, there is no shortage of rats leaving a sinking ship, of people realising that there is no post-war role for them, and of people continuing to live in the fantasies of war and conquest.
      None was more in the grip of fantasy than Hitler, who according to the record rarely showed awareness of what was actually happening, or gave signs that he understood his responsibility for the catastrophe. It is in this denial of reality, of clinging to his crazy vision, that Hitler is paradoxically most human, and that is how Ganz plays him. This has caused criticism of Hitler being presented as too human, as weak and fragile and deserving of pity. I think this criticism is misplaced, or rather, that it comes from an unwillingness to accede that a Hitler is well within the range of human possibilities, but to see him as some kind demonic aberration. But he was merely a man who tried to make his fantasies real, and in failing to do so he caused the death of 50,000,000 people.
      Hitler was not merely fundamentally too stupid to achieve his ambitions, he was unable to accept his own incompetence. Many people believe Hitler had a monstrous ego, but I think he suffered from a pathetically weak one. He needed the fantasies of supreme power and competence in order to survive. His rage at what he saw as personal betrayals was at bottom fear that others saw that he essentially was a nothing. His skill consisted in convincing other people that he indeed could wield supreme power, and that conviction reflected back to him was what sustained him.
      When objective evidence showed up his incompetence, Hitler scrabbled all the more desperately to maintain his fantasy. For too long he succeeded, and the puzzle is why. I think that a large part was his followers’ distrust of each other. They weren’t so much afraid of what Hitler could or would do if they asserted independence, but of what their colleagues might do, if only to eliminate rivals for power. And all of them were afraid of the lower cadres, the ordinary soldiers who were in the habit of following orders. Some could see no way out, and stumbled towards the end, doing their work as best they could. Put that stew of feelings, fears, beliefs, attitudes and habits together, and we can see how the power structure in the bunker lasted until Hitler put as bullet through his head. That’s what the movie shows, and in showing this, it reminds us that character and personality always make a difference .
     This is a depressing movie in many ways, but I think it’s essential viewing. Well done in all respects. ****

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