Downfall (2004)

Saw this film a couple of nights ago, and while I don’t love it, I find it interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s a fascinating look at how ideology shapes people. We all have things in which we believe. Some of those may push us to look beyond ourselves for answers, community, or a number of other things. Others may be much more limited. The way that different characters related to the overall ideology of Nazism was distinct from one to the next.

At one end of a spectrum, you have people like Hitler, Goebbels, and the young SS officer at the end. These folks believe so strongly in the ideology that they continually defy both logic and common decency in their desire to be good soldiers to their belief system. This seems to not even be a conscious choice for them, they are so deeply ingrained with it. The killing of the Goebbels children is the most obvious example of this. On the other end, you have people like Prof. Schenck and Frau Junge, who while trying to remain loyal to their superiors out of a sense of duty, will yet quietly question the course of action. This is mostly communicated through looks of discontent and discomfort.

In one scene, Frau Junge looks askance at Hitler’s mention of his hatred of the Jews. In another, Prof. Schenck looks on with concern as Prof. Hasse explains to Hitler the most surefire method of suicide. It seems then that for some, the structure of the ideology is so important, that their actions will flow from it, even if the ideology itself is flawed. On the other end are people who may or may not be sympathetic to the cause, yet at the same time bring themselves into the equation when it comes to making decisions. It is not simply enough to follow the letter of the law to its logical conclusion. One must constantly question oneself and one’s beliefs, to see that they align with what is true and good.

This distinction between the two groups leads to my second thought, which is that I find it interesting that the people who come out looking best in this film are the one’s who lived. Those who died are of a different breed altogether. This makes me think about the nature of truth, memory, and self-interest. It seems this film was built off of the accounts of several people in the bunker, most notably Trudl Junge. While I don’t know enough about the situation to get into specifics, I find it revealing that she comes out of the film looking downright angelic. Now, I won’t argue that she deserves to be considered in the same breath as Hitler, but the cynic (or is it realist) in me finds it hard to believe she was quite so ignorant and innocent. Everyone who related their story of these final days is being tugged at by an obvious self-interest, particularly in the years since the War, when the name Hitler conjures visions of demons and hell and evil. Who wants to be associated with any of that?

This, I think, is the great weakness of the film. While it gives a bit of complexity to the characters we consider pure evil (Hitler, Goebbels) by showing some of their more tender moments, we don’t get the corresponding complexity for the “good” characters, like Frau Junge and Dr. Schenck. This failure on the filmmakers part leaves the film coming up a bit short for me. I like it as a historical document, but I think it could have been a really interesting look at humanity. There it falls short.

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