Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sunday Review: Downfall

Hitler and the end of the Third Reich: A reflection on our condition

By Bob Boldt

The other night [some years ago] I decided to watch a couple of opening scenes from a rented video, Downfall [Der Untergang, 2004], before dropping off to sleep. Big mistake. The movie gripped me from the first frame and wouldn’t let me stop watching until it had run its last credit. I cannot imagine they actually, finally made a movie like that about Hitler. I’m sure that it took all these years’ distance from the real events to allow the perspective that permitted the portrayal of characters in all their humanity and not as the predictable cartoon cardboard cut-out monsters we have been fed ad nauseum.
    I think this review needs no spoiler alert as all the events are in the historical record. I should restate here that I do not write reviews for people who have not seen the films in question. My reviews might actually be better labeled reflection points in a continuing conversation.
    Sixty years later we still have not come to terms with the fact that those who did such horrible things were not animals (what a defamation of our fellow creatures!) or demons, but men and women of flesh and blood. It is precisely because these were the horrific accomplishments of real people that their acts are so threatening to us and we must quickly draw the shroud over the unspeakable truth – that the face that rises to meet us in our reflection on these events is our own.
    For me the hardest part is to realize how impossible it is for most of us to actually acknowledge and see this darkness and how everything in us works to prevent and protect us from this realization. Because we cannot see our own face in the face of Hitler, we demonize instead of really seeing, really understanding.
    Eros and Thanatos flow within the human breast, contend for our allegiance and would carry us away on their conflicting currents. These two drives manifest themselves in many remarkable ways within our psyches and our social institutions. One current would lead us toward life and light, creativity, love, and wholeness and a ripening of our pregnant natures. The other, equally forceful, equally human current leads down to the darker regions. In its institutionalized incarnation, Thanatos can embody a deep form of unthinking, a shutting down of all connection with others, the world around us, and life itself. This is the current that finds manifestation in the three great plagues of our modern world: fundamentalism in religion, fascism in politics, and reductionism in science.

    In the film, the suicides of Eva Braun and Hitler are anticlimactic compared with the dramatic impact of Frau Goebbels’s murder of her six children. In this act we see all the culmination and the horrible implications of an existence devoted so totally to certainty, fanatical loyalty, and idealism that finally even life itself must be snuffed out before yielding to disloyalty or doubt.
    I would suggest that precisely because we have never admitted Hitler’s humanity, we refuse to allow that these acts were committed and administered by a charismatic, flesh-and-blood, democratically elected politician. Because we believed him to be a demon with fangs and claws, it is almost impossible for us to detect similar symptoms when, once again, such a leader arises in our own period of history and in our own midst. Hitler was neither a god nor a demon. Bush is neither a god nor a demon. Such a leader can inspire the electorate to incredible flights of self-destructive stupidity, as we have seen in the sad historical record of WWII as well as in today’s headlines. I see in the words and actions of our present rulers and their apologists many disturbing tendencies toward a repetition of history’s dark past. If we understood this past with greater clarity, and perhaps a bit more objectivity, we might be able to avoid the relearning of some of the harshest teachings. I believe this is one of the lessons the producers of Downfall are attempting to show us.
    I swear, I do not think of these people as inhumane monsters who get up every morning, look into the bathroom mirror, and say to themselves, “Well, Donald, let’s see just how much evil we can do today!” “Everybody has his reasons,” as filmmaker Jean Renoir said.

Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as a human Hitler
For me, the message of Downfall is that the lesson of these horrific acts will be lost to us if we view them only as the actions of madmen – part of a mad race. Obama is wrong to demonize the “other” he fears so by branding all opposition to Empire as “terrorism” and rallying us around the true cross. So we are equally wrong to brand Obama, H. Clinton, Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney and that whole crowd only as madmen (and women) and mere craven fools. By denying the “other” his humanity, we lose our ability to see him or even to counteract his violence and his destruction – even our ability to save ourselves from the harm his excesses will certainly visit upon us.
    In Buddhism there is the Metta Sutta in which we say to ourselves, our loved ones – and finally even to our enemies:

May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you enjoy the fruits of your labors, duly acquired. All have Karma as their own.
    This seemingly simple-minded golden rule of sorts elucidates a profound teaching. It contains the only strategy I have ever encountered that can look into the great pit of blackness, gore, and violence that fills the human skull and somehow love and transcend all that is contained there. In fact I think that one cannot truly appreciate the Metta Sutta without fully drinking from the depths of that bloody chalice. To, in the end, stand with love and affirmation on this knowledge of the fullness of both our genius and our atrocity is, to my mind, the only way to fulfill our humanity. I hasten to add that this is a test that I fail with a disturbing regularity.
It’s unbelievable that he [Hitler] could manipulate all those people. He only succeeded because he was a human being, and that’s why we have to show this. To show him as a human being. Everything else would be fatal. And it would be a historical mistake. [–Director of Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel]
Copyright © 2015 by Bob Boldt


  1. My first wife was born in Austria. I set up all one night with my mother in law asking how something like that could happen. The answers were very enlightening.

  2. Some of you may have seen one of the many parodies of scenes from Downfall. I sort of have mixed feelings seeing such a moving performance turned into a laughingstock. But what the hell.

    "What good are you if you can't laugh at yourself now and then."
    Adolf Hitler

    1. I agree, Bob, what the hell! I hadn't seen this parody, and I very much enjoyed it. I've forwarded your comment to a German friend, who I hope will be able to confirm that Bruno Ganz's interview was not also a parody.

    2. I didn't realize these are a small industry. A year or so ago, a skiing friend sent me "Hitler wants to ski Vail". I thought it tasteless. But funny.

    3. Chuck, now that you mention the "ski Vail" parody, I remember it. And, tasteless though it might have been or was, I think I used it as a fish.
          I didn't realize either that it was an industry.