Ticket lines for movies are rare in Israel, and rarer still for features that have already been showing for five weeks, and unprecedented for a German production centered on the character of Adolf Hitler. Yet Israelis are still lining up to see Oliver Hirschbiegel's tenebrous docudrama about the Third Reich's closing days, Der Untergang--The Downfall.
The film, which has won several German awards and has been nominated for an Oscar, triggered nervous debate in Europe over its depiction of Hitler not as a one-dimensional monster but as a flesh-and-blood person, cruel and temperamental at times, but sympathetic and even fatherly at others. In Israel, where it is officially a crime to call a Jew a Nazi, the portrayal of the ultimate Nazi as anything less than demonic is bound to arouse controversy. But Israeli audiences have responded exuberantly, praising actor Bruno Ganz and his nuanced Hitler. Interviewed on Israeli television on Holocaust Memorial Day, Moshe Zimmermann--a historian who was once sued for comparing settler children to Hitler Youth--posited that this new, human Hitler served to demythologize Nazism and show how even normal people might be seduced by evil.
But Zimmermann thoroughly missed the point of the movie--as did most Israelis who saw the film. The Downfall is not about Hitler, human or otherwise, not about Nazism and evil. It is about letting Germany off the hook.
The film opens in 1942, when the 22-year-old Traudl Junge is chosen by Hitler to be his personal secretary. The Fuhrer is here seen as an affable man, crinkly-eyed and patient, even when Traudl fails at typing his dictation.
Fast-forward to late April 1945, and Germany is on the brink of collapse. The Russians have penetrated Berlin, and Hitler, his Nazi cronies, and his staff are locked in an underground bunker. The denizens of this lair are divided between Junker-type generals (such as Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, and Wilhelm Mohnke), who know that the war is lost and want to surrender honorably, and deluded lackeys (such as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Eva Braun, Hitler's paramour), who insist that nonexistent German armies can still turn the tide and ultimately save the Reich. Armaments Minister Albert Speer makes an appearance and sides with the generals, while Heinrich Himmler favors allying with the Americans against Russia. A tremulous Hitler wavers between these positions, alternatively despairing and defiant. And beside him throughout stands Traudl, who, though bereft of hope, refuses to abandon her Fuhrer.
While focusing on this subterranean drama, the film veers off into two subplots, both set in the Bosch-scape of Berlin. The first features Ernst-Gunter Schenck, a military doctor who ignores orders to abandon the city and remains to attend to its wounded. The second follows Peter Kranz, who, though only a boy, destroys two enemy tanks, while his father, a one-armed veteran, struggles to drag him from the battle.
The wickedness, the senselessness, the horror--all might have combined into soul-wrenching confession about a nation's descent into barbarity. But The Downfall, based largely on the self-expiating memoirs of Traudl and Speer, is concerned with exoneration, not penance, and realizes it through manipulation and deceit.
Take, for example, Traudl. She is the perfect ingenue: modest, demure, incapable of uttering an unkind or scatological word. Unsullied by ideology, she gapes incredulously every time Hitler makes an anti-Semitic remark. And, though she is played by the irresistible Alexandra Maria Lara, the Traudl character is portrayed as mostly sexless. She elicits not a single lascivious stare, much less a pinch, from any of the bunker's besotted officers. The real Traudl Junge, however, joined the Nazi League of German Girls at age 15 and was later elected to the elite Faith and Beauty society, whose members often mated with party stalwarts.
Other Nazis are similarly rehabilitated by the film. Ernst-Gunter Schenck was an SS officer accused of performing experiments on prisoners at Mauthausen. Keitel and Jodl were both executed for war crimes--a fact mentioned just once before the closing credits--and Mohnke was charged with massacring Allied POWs. Speer, who is seen boldly ignoring Hitler's orders to destroy Germany's infrastructure, constructed his buildings with slave laborers. And the Wehrmacht, which is painted in such heroic colors that the audience cannot help but root for it, was complicit in countless atrocities.
What, Gott in Himmel, is going on here? Clearly, The Downfall is distinguishing between bad Germans (a small band of Nazis) and good (everyone else). The bunker's debauchery is contrasted with the suffering of simple Berliners, and Hitler's desire to destroy the German people for failing to win the war is compared with the army's determination to fight even though victory is impossible. The dusky lynch squads who hang Peter's father serve as a counterpoint to the fair-haired children who try to help others escape, and the ghoul-faced Goebbels is the reverse image of Traudl, who remains angelic even as she flees the city wearing an SS helmet.
The Downfall wants to demonstrate how the German people, too, were victimized by Nazism. If guilty at all, it is only of overwrought nationalism, of misplaced loyalty, or of just plain na?vet?--anything but evil. Not even the Nazis are truly evil, only sick. They prefer to blow their brains out, or, like Goebbels's sociopathic wife, Magda, to poison their own children rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. And, of all the Nazis, none is crazier--insane, not satanic--than Adolf Hitler.
Hitler's humanity, in fact, lasts for five minutes in the film's opening scene. Thereafter, he launches into a maelstrom of tirades, tantrums, and incoherent fits that culminate in his suicide. Since he is not a bad person, per se, but merely a lunatic, it follows that those who adored him were also unbalanced--temporarily, in the case of many Germans, terminally for the die-hard Nazis. By reducing the Third Reich to a limited dementia, The Downfall absolves the German people of any moral culpability for perpetrating World War II and destroying European Jewry. On the contrary, it casts them as heroic, even martyr-like. The movie closes with Traudl and the orphaned Peter Kranz together, cycling into the sunshine--the virgin and the golden-haired child, the progenitors of an immaculate Germany.
Most of the Israelis who lined up for The Downfall were too focused on its multi-faceted Fuhrer to see this whitewashing. Others, yearning to be part of the New Europe, welcomed it. But the film is not meant for Israelis, nor even for Americans. Rather, its ideal viewers are twentysomething Germans who have made it the most popular film in their country's history. And understandably so, for they emerge from the theater convinced that their grandparents were valorous, victimized, and naive, and that Germany can unreservedly take its place in a post-nationalist, post-psychotic Europe. They can enjoy watching the next generation of Germans play hide-and-seek around the abstract black cubes of Berlin's new Holocaust memorial, situated near the site of Hitler's bunker.
Though some movies open with a disclaimer, The Downfall ends with one. Statistics appear on the screen--"Fifty million people were killed in World War II, and six million Jews died in German concentration camps"--couched in soothingly passive verbs. Then, the real Traudl Junge, 80 years old but still handsome, asserts that she never once suspected the evil deeds committed by her mad ex-boss. But compare this ending with that of another movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, released in 1961. After deciding that four German judges on trial for war crimes were guilty merely by having participated in the Nazi system, American justice Dan Waywood (played by a wizened Spencer Tracy) declares, "If the defendants had been degraded perverts, if all the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events [the Holocaust] would have no more moral content than an earthquake." Perhaps Der Untergang should change its name to Der Erdbeben, The Earthquake.
Michael B. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
By Michael B. Oren