Hitler's Downfall Rescreened

The place where the most famous villain in history met his maker bears no trace of it.

After they committed suicide, the bodies of Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun were burned—as Hitler himself had insisted—outside an emergency exit from the bunker in which they spent their last days.

The bunker itself was discovered only in 1990 during, of all things, preparations for “The Wall,” the mammoth concert Roger Waters organized in celebration of German reunification. In May 1995, the regional parliament of Berlin, rejecting a proposal to retain the site as a monument, locked it and built houses for the representatives from the Bundesländer over it. A present-day visitor can walk by without having any idea of its significance.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writer/producer Bernd Eichinger have chosen the bunker as the setting of their film Downfall, loosely based on a book of the same title by Hitler-biographer Joachim Fest.

It is the perfect scene on which to attempt the almost impossible feat Downfall has attempted. For the lost bunker presents a microcosm of the perennial problem of forgetting in postwar German memory, the difficulty of dealing with a history so many of whose most significant events are so horrific that to memorialize them in positive fashion seems disrespectful, if not simply impossible.

The material in Eichinger’s script is not entirely new. The account of Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, which provides the film with its basic structure and point of view, appeared in the 2002 documentary Blind Spot by Austrian multimedia artist André Heller. Much of the same material was the subject of a 2003 documentary in the BBC’s Days that Shook the World series, which also included a description of the bunker through Traudl’s eyes.

However, the release of the film last September caused an uproar in Germany. The objections it provoked were, predictably, related to the allegedly “humanizing” aspects of Eichinger’s account.

These allegations are not without basis. Bruno Ganz is not the toga-clad, Wagner-spouting Führer of Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s 1977 epic. He is not always clearly monstrous. Shortly before her death, Eichinger’s Eva Braun speaks with Traudl of the difference between Hitler when he’s husband and employer and Hitler “when he’s the Führer.” Which is to make the dangerous suggestion that there is a human Hitler after all.

Although he is to sputter with psycho-delusional rage against foreigners, Jews, bankers, and his top-ranking officers as the hopelessness of his situation becomes increasingly clear, the Führer first appears on screen kindly introducing himself to prospective secretaries, coddling Blondi, his German shepherd, and consoling a nervous Traudl over her typing errors.

Day after day, over the course of the film’s relentless two hours and 35 minutes, life in the bunker becomes a hypnotic, if horrific, mix. One after another of the innermost members of Hitler’s circle defy and abandon him. He mentally and physically deteriorates further and further (until when asking a confidante how to shoot himself, he is told he should take cyanide as well, lest his violently tremoring hand not be up to the task).

Yet, the scenes around the dinner table, and between the dwindling number that decides to remain out of personal loyalty, in spite of the bleakness of the situation, are strangely domestic. There are moments in which the combination seems to suggest something like pathos.

And some may find this troubling. But, for the most part, by keeping Hitler in the third person of Traudl’s account, Eichinger has resisted “psychologizing” him in the damning sense that most critics would use that term. By confining himself and his script almost exclusively to the last days of the war and avoiding explanatory digressions into the disappointments of Hitler’s youth and his experiences in World War I, Eichinger escapes any impulse toward explanation qua explanation.

By the same token, he avoids making the kind of overwhelmingly clear-cut retrospective moral judgments of which his narrator seems to have been incapable, given her involvement and her supposed ignorance of the full extent of the atrocities for which her boss was responsible. There is no final cut to footage from Auschwitz—or to any image that would remind us of what Traudl did not see.

Her appearance of doe-eyed shock at some of the more vitriolic statements Hitler makes in his last days is perhaps one of the least plausible elements of the film (he has, after all, been dictating notes and speeches to her for more than two years). However, it is also part of what makes the ethical problems interesting.

In the 2002 documentary footage with which the film concludes, the real-life, octogenarian Traudl still claims that, because she “couldn’t have known” what was going on in the camps “she can’t blame herself.” Then she turns about a sentence or so later and says that youth was “no excuse.”

If these self-contradictions are difficult to accept, they are also the contradictions that make it so difficult to comprehend seemingly banal evil or, in Daniel Goldhagen’s interpretation, the willingness of the many who served as Hitler’s executioners.

The most brutal scene in the film is not one of the plentiful tableaus of pre-adolescent Hitler Youth committing suicide as the city falls, nor of limbs being sawed off without anesthetic in makeshift, underground hospitals, but of a steel-faced Magda Goebbels poisoning each of her six cherubic blonde children shortly before her own suicide—giving them their “salvation,” as she writes in a letter, because it is “no longer worth it to live in a world after National Socialism.”

The camera spares us nothing. Having forcibly administered them a sleeping drug, Goebbels inserts a glass vial of cyanide into each unconscious child’s mouth, crunches each jaw shut, pulls a blanket over each face, exposing each set of small feet. She goes outside and collapses.

The film makes no further comment. It has not caricatured Magda, as it does, to a certain extent, caricature Joseph Goebbels. Between her six-victim murder and her suicide with her husband, we are given no further data to indicate how we should feel about an otherwise apparently loving mother capable of such brutality.

If the problem of forgetting is a theme of German history and historiography, this is not only the result of conscious repression. It comes also from the sheer unrepresentability of the extent of horror inflicted and suffered during the twelve years of the Third Reich.

The generation that came of age during the War often referred to a “zero” hour or year at its end, as Roberto Rossellini did in the title of his 1947 film, Germany Year Zero. At the simplest level, these nulls name a fact visible all over Germany—in Dresden, Frankfurt, Berlin, and the other cities leveled by Allied bombing, where the absence of pre-1945 buildings best testifies to what happened.

Philosophically, these lacunae point to a fundamental problem of witness itself. For, as Elie Wiesel once put it, “those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely…The past belongs to the dead.”

Those who have fully witnessed the tragedies of history are not the spectators who can return from the scene to bear witness. The complete witness can never come back. As a result, the glance reconstituted by the witness can never come back. As a result, the glance reconstituted by the witness or represented by the artist can only be partial. If this inherent inadequacy of representations does not excuse the frolicking Roberto Benigni from critique, it does explain the indignation that almost every Holocaust film provokes among some portion of its viewers and critics.

Eichinger’s film does not explain why Hitler was the man he was. Nor can it justify Traudl’s attraction to him. It is wise enough not to attempt to—even if, by putting him on screen at all, it breaks a taboo rarely tested by German filmmakers.

Post-war German politicians and thinkers so often called for a Vergangenheisbewältigung—for a “coming to terms with the past,” or, to translate the word more literally, a mastery of it.

In a 1959 speech, Hannah Arendt speaks of the violence that is necessary for any such Vergangenheitsbewältigung. She argued that any such attempt to master the violence of history is inevitably another Bewältigung—that is, must involve another violence and another bid for mastery.

As an attempt somehow to mater an appalling history by representation, Downfall presents appalling events and figures. It draws us into an appalling world. Yet, at least for its duration, the film puts the viewer in the position of inhabiting such a world.

To relegate the horrors of the Holocaust and those responsible for them to the realm of pure anomaly, to make them singular and unrepresentable—this is a failure to confront the moral complexity and the danger that those evetns reveal.

What Hirschbieger and Eichinger have done may not satisfy everyone. And it is not to be recommended to everyone. However, it offers a valuable contribution to an ongoing process fo coming to terms with the past, which, if it is to operate honestly on the terms of that past, must always be difficult.