Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Downfall - Trying to give a human face to a monster: Review

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall” dramatises the last days of Adolf Hitler. Sourced largely from an autobiography – “Until the Final Hour” -- of Traudl Junge, who worked as the German dictator’s personal secretary from 1942 to the fall of Berlin in 1945, this 2004 film is a vain attempt at giving a human face to the man who passionately believed in Aryan supremacy.

A brochure that was distributed before the release of “Downfall” in Chennai in August 2006 says that Hitler loved children, loved his dog, Blondie, so much that he prepared all its meals, and that he was a vegetarian, because he hated the idea of killing animals.

Well, well, he brutally massacred 1.5 children, mostly Jewish. He poisoned his dog just before he shot himself in his Berlin Bunker. He was a vegetarian, because he had a weak stomach. And, he gassed to death six million Jews, and felt no remorse.

When we see Hitler patting Blondie or profusely thanking his cook for the excellent vegetarian ravioli or with his arms twitching in nervous palsy, we have to stop ourselves from feeling a tinge of sorrow for a man who nearly destroyed Europe, crushed young dreams and hopes, and reduced to ashes millions. Yes, we realise in the nick of time that this is how human monsters are supposed to be.

Hirschbiegel’s work gives a brief account of Hitler in 1942, when we see Junge being appointed his secretary. The movie skips the intervening years to take us to the final days in 1945, when we face a demented and raving mad Hitler, who looses hundreds of thousands of his men, including his trusted loyalists, because of his obstinate belief that victory could be had. Even with the Russians pounding Berlin with artillery fire, and just a few blocks away, Hitler stood crouched in his bunker dreaming of German supremacy.

The question that the film can raise now is, will “Downfall” rekindle some long-buried yearning. No, one does not suppose that, because Hirschbiegel ultimately tells us that the Third Reich had no heroes. Some of Hitler’s core men had to drink themselves to a state of stupor before killing themselves along with the Fuhrer. Others take their children with them, and in one terrifying scene, we are shown how a mother gives cyanide to six of her children whom she had put to sleep earlier with a tranquiliser. And, men like Heinrich Himmler devise cowardly plans to escape.

“Downfall” disturbs you all right, but it also puts you in a dilemma. Did Hitler deserve any sympathy? If Hirschbiegel’s idea was to evoke some, he does not quite succeed here, because the world knows so much about Hitler that there is very little room for anything other than hatred and anger for him.

Admittedly, when a great actor such as Bruno Ganz plays Hitler, and tries to add a human touch to the monster, viewers are bound to waver. But Alexandra Maria Lara as Junge restores the balance: we see in her eyes, on her face the terror that her master unleashed.

After Hitler’s suicide, Junge lived an obscure life till she wrote her book (along with author Melissa Muller) shortly before her death in 2002. She was 81, and is reported to have said, “Now that I have let go of my story, I can let go of my life”.

This line clearly shows the angst of a woman who witnessed sheer horror, and we see this in actor Lara. Nobody can miss it. And, as the movie swings between the war on the surface and the serenity in the bunker, between the deafening noise of artillery fire and the deathly silence underground; and between murder and suicide, we feel a certain gravitating of sympathy towards the evil characters. But Junge counters such empathy with her frightened innocence.

“Downfall" extends this to ordinary Germans: they were not guilty of what Hitler and his men did.

(Posted on this website on August 26 2006)