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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Nazis! I Hate Those Guys: Der Untergang
Last night we watched Downfall, my third and final German film for the summer semester. Downfall is the story of Hitler's last days, and what is remarkable about the movie -- and what made it so controversial when it came out last year-- is that takes a completely value-neutral stance to the atrocities of the Nazis. The Holocaust is barely mentioned and the historical context of the war is completely ignored in favor of a subtle and disconcerting portrait of Hitler as a broken, deluded, and (yes) nearly tragic man.

I mean tragic in the classical sense. The film, while never elegaic or nostalgic for the Nazi era, is infused with the language of a heroic fall from grace -- putting us in the mindset of 1945's loyal Germans, watching their god-king collapse before their eyes. Bruno Ganz in particular seems to be drawing heavily from Richard III for his performance as Hitler, affecting both a slight hunch and a Parkinson's-esque finger twitch.

What is most horrifying about Downfall is not the behavior of Hitler or Himmler or Goebbels -- the people you already knew were madmen -- or the behavior of the many lower-ranked Nazis who commit suicide (often killing their wives and children first) rather than face accountability for their crimes. No, it's the behavior of regular, ordinary people, people who seem otherwise good and decent, who have been caught up in the Nazi Maelstrom and yet still mourn its passing. At its core, this film is not about Hitler so much as it is about what Hannah Arendt so perfectly named "the banality of evil."

One character, Prof. Schenck, is perhaps the moral center of the movie, seemingly the most upright and good man in Nazi Germany -- and yet of course he himself is a loyal Nazi, loyal to Hitler and the Reich to the end. The principal point-of-view character, Traudl Junge, would otherwise be a perfectly sympathetic and even admirable character, were she not Hitler's fiercely loyal personal secretary (and, perhaps, even in love with him).

The beginning and end of the film contain documentary footage of the real-life Taundl Junge, from an interview she gave in 2002 before her death. The clips, which highlight Junge's continued reluctance to face either the truth about Hitler or the truth about her own complicity in the Third Reich, into her 80s-- a reluctance, it should be said, she is by no means alone in exhibiting -- are the perfect bookend for the movie thematically, leaving you with both revulsion over the complacency of "good Germans" and horror over the realization that you yourself may be no different.

Following the Junge interview is a Bizarro-Animal House montage of still photographs accompanied by text explaining what became of the surviving characters, with a suprising number surviving into the '80s and '90s and a handful still around today. That one could have once been a Nazi, and now still be alive, is as surreal and unfathomable as anything else in Downfall.

To attempt to humanize Nazis, much less someone like Hitler, is perhaps the modern shibboleth -- especially in the Bush era of "moral clarity," which is why this film is both so striking and so riveting and so horrible and so important.

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