Friday, June 17, 2016

Good Nazis vs. bad Nazis

That's a joke. I mean, they were all bad, right?
Or were they?

Nazis were all people, and that's the only generalization you can make about them with any certainty.

That's the compelling underlying notion of Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel's relentlessly captivating 2004 film that I've bestowed five stars on Letterboxd. And yes, I do realize that two of the last six movies I've given five stars were about Adolf Hitler. (Inside Out, Creed, The Armor of Light and Sherlock Jr. were sandwiched in between this and The Great Dictator.)

I came for the Hitler screaming meme, but stayed for the human drama.

That's right, Downfall was probably most on my radar for the same reason it is on other people's -- the fact that the tantrums thrown by Bruno Ganz as Hitler developed a life of their own on the internet. In fact, there are enough times that a Hitler beset by physical palsies goes apoplectic about a particular report of discouraging information, or a particular perceived betrayal, that I wasn't even sure until I googled it which tantrum inspired the meme. Just now I determined it's the one where he accuses all the German soldiers and generals of being cowards and says that he has been deceived and betrayed from the start, finishing with the first mention of him preferring to blow his brains out than leave Berlin. Oh yeah, that one.

But the fact that Downfall has earned the lion's share of its fame from being made light of on the internet is unfortunate indeed. This is a grueling document of the final days of the Third Reich, containing enough storylines and interesting characters to populate a Robert Altman movie. If there is comedy in Ganz' rants, it is certainly unintentional. It's a portrait of a man at the end of his rope. One of the worst men who has ever existed, but a man nonetheless.

There are plenty of films in which combatants in wars suffer inglorious and undignified fates. But most of those are distinguished by trying to play on our sympathies for these people, innocent victims of aggression, or brave soldiers trying to fight tyranny. In Downfall, all the characters we meet are the tyranny. They are all either fervently devoted to or complicit in their cooperation with the Nazi party. Sure, we see some kids and some old people and some others who are not necessarily guilty of any moral shortcoming -- but we also see some who are. And pretty much everyone we get to know is someone serving in the highest ranks of the party, or provides direct support to those people (such as the secretaries who type Hitler's memos, one of whose stories provides narrative bookends to the film).

This is so much more interesting than another film's righteous attempt to infuriate us about what's happening to its characters. It's easy to sympathize with someone who is brave or innocent; much harder, yet more intellectually stimulating, is to apply your sympathies to a cross-section of people who are all morally compromised in one way or another. The long-standing excuse of those who participated idly in Nazism is that they were "just following orders," which of course we know is no valid excuse at all. But the fact remains that many of them certainly did not know the extent of the horror the Nazi party was involved in, and might have run screaming if they did. This does not make them innocent, it just makes them guilty of being humans, humans who bowed to the current and went along with things that they only vaguely understood might be evil.

Downfall of course has its share of truly reprehensible people. Perhaps even worse than Hitler -- could it be possible? -- was Joseph Goebbels, who was such a true believer that he and his wife Magda presided over the systematic poisoning of all six of their children, five beautiful girls and one beautiful boy, simply to save them from living in a world without national socialism. The scene in which they carry this out -- she does it, actually, in a monstrous betrayal of all the traditional precepts of motherhood -- is almost unendurable. The children are first made to drink some medicine that makes them drowsy, then are forced to bite cyanide capsules while sleeping. Magda Goebbels plows through her grim duty with the focus of a zealot, pausing between children only long enough to pull the blanket over their faces -- still looking as though they are merely sleeping. The gaunt Joseph Goebbels -- portrayed terrifyingly by Ulrich Matthes -- looks on from afar, a self-styled man of action proving himself a hypocrit in what would seem to be his most challenging hour.

But this world has its good people too. Take Ernst Gunther-Schenck (Christian Berkel), an SS doctor who is horrified by the way Hitler has ordered his soldiers to kill his own people and destroy his own buildings. He works tirelessly to save German civilians who have been hospitalized or are otherwise wounded, when the prevailing wisdom by Hitler and Goebbels is that they have chosen their own fate by giving the Nazi party a mandate. I suppose some of this may be glorified as part of Downfall was based on Gunther-Scheck's memoirs, but we spend a lot of time with him scurrying around and trying to save lives that have been deemed dispensable.

And then you've got those in the middle. There's Nazi architect Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), who would seem to be a true believer and who describes an unwavering personal loyalty to Hitler. He also arrives in Berlin simply to tell Hitler that he has been disobeying his orders for some time, and actually working at cross purposes to them. Whether this is some latent sense of moral rectitude or simply a disbelief in the strategic validity of Hitler's increasingly unhinged commands is uncertain. However, as I now know that Speer gained fame after the war as the Nazi who apologized at the Nuermberg Trials, I suspect he was having a change of heart about exactly what the hell they were doing.

And then you have our protagonist of sorts, Traudl Junge, the real version of whom appears at the beginning and end in an excerpt from a documentary in which she shares her shame over working for the Third Reich. The film's first non-documentary scene shows her (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) being selected from a pool of potential secretaries, out in a bunker somewhere in the middle of the night. She is starstruck in the presence of Hitler, and these feelings persist even 2 1/2 years later when the war is coming to an end. As good and pure as she seems on the surface, she's so committed to the man she admires that she even pledges to stay in Berlin and commit suicide with him. It's her eventual escape that we pray for most urgently, even as she hasn't been disabused of her wrong-headed loyalties at this late date of everything going to shit.

The neat trick this movie pulls off is that it prepares you for something, and then gives you something else. Most viewers will come in to Downfall thinking they'll be engaging in a prolonged episode of schadenfreude, to use an appropriately German term. They may think that watching the steady, violent dismantling of a political philosophy informed by hatred will be intensely satisfying, kind of the equivalent of watching the Nazis get theirs at the end of Inglourious Basterds. What this movie does instead is do such a fantastic job of character development that you see Nazis as actual humans, "sympathetic" in narrative terms even though their actions and beliefs are the very definition of unsympathetic.

Anyway, it was a pretty damn profound experience.

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