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.