Apolitical World War II buffs who get off on guys strutting around in uniforms, consulting maps, and arguing military strategy, are probably the target American audience for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, the new German film (an Oscar Best Foreign Film nominee) dramatizing the last days of Adolf Hitler. There’s a spiffy production design, persuasive in both its interiors (the elaborate linking rooms which constituted Hitler’s bunker) and exteriors (a smouldering, burned-to-the-ground Berlin). The familiar story, of the Nazi’s final battles against the invading Russians and the double suicide of Hitler and Eva Braun, is told efficiently; the 155 minutes pass quickly. The German actors who portray recognizable Nazi commandants Goebbels, Himmler, Speer, etc.-all pass muster. Hitler’s OK too, if a bit aged, stooped and sixtyish instead of straight-shouldered and fiftyish: the fine Swiss-German actor Bruno Ganz (Alice in the Cities, An American Friend).
How do you do Der Fuhrer? It’s in constructing its protoganist that the filmmakers of Downfall were met with philosophical challenges. He’s got to be more than a mustached, evil-spewing, stereotype, and yet he can’t be too humanized either, this murderer of six million Jews! Downfall strives for proper imbalance: Ganz’s Hitler can be kind to his secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), friendly to those fiercely loyal to him, such as Magda (Corinna Harfouch) and Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), and courtly toward his girfriend, Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler). But he’s also cranky, mean-tempered, and, importantly, a fervent, up-front anti-Semite, who gives speeches to those about him, praising himself for having "cleansed" Germany of Jews.
How do his underlings react to Hitler’s Jew-hating? Oddly, they say nothing at all, standing about politely, as if embarrassed by their boss’s racist improprieties. German soldiers come and go, even SS troopers, but nobody mentions Jews. In fact, the only anti-Semite in all Germany in this German-made movie is Adolf himself!
German revisionism about the War? You bet! As the movie marches on, it becomes clear that Downfall’s major attack on Der Fuhrer is not his heinous Nazi policies (in real life, carried out by millions of "Heil-Hitlering" Germans) but that, toward the end, he was on a self-absorbed death trip, contemptuous of the German people, indifferent to the reality that this country he led, attacked by the Allies, was being reduced to rubble.
Who are Downfall’s villains? A few true-believer storm troopers who would rather shoot themselves than live on in a non-Nazi world. And there’s the Goebbels family of seven, a satanic version of the Trapps: blonde, Aryan, always crooning in unison patriotic Nazi tunes, dying in a mass suicide. Joseph Goebbels is Hitler’s echo: "I feel no sympathy. The German people deserve their fate."
And everyone else? Behind the well-oiled military melodrama is the film’s true, and repugnant, ideology, revisionism as a whitewash. Only Adolf and a few nutty extreme loyalists are implicated in what Nazi Germany did to the world in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of the Third Reich military are regular GI Joes, and most who share Hitler’s bunker are nice people, civilians in the wrong place and wrong time. Downfall’s Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) seems a decent man, and Eva Braun is a likable party girl. Ordinary Germans? To a person, they are victims of the war, victims of Hitler’s madness. Innocents! The most vile scene in the movie occurs in a German hospital which has been bombed by the Russians. There’s a shot of patients looking numb and comatose. The image is eerily familiar; it’s the starved, half-alive in Hitler’s death camps awaiting liberation. Downfall has the audacity to replace Jews with Berliner Aryans, making the latter virtual Holocaust survivors. I say: heresy!
Here’s a neat way to combat Hitler today, assuring that Jewish culture goes on. The National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University is working to preserve a 1939 Yiddish movie, The Living Orphan, an urban drama shot on the Lower East Side of New York featuring stars of the then flourishing Yiddish theatre. The NEH has provided $15,000, but requires matching funds of $15,000 to restore the original nitrate negative and forge a new print. $100 from you allows for the restoration of 100 feet of film. Donations are tax deductible. Call 781-899-7044, and learn how you can assist the heroic National Center restore its 33rd Yiddish picture.