The Damning Remnant
Can any movie capture the massive evil of the Third Reich, or has the whole business become a self-referential media cliche? Every time another earnest, gloomy film about World War II and/or the Shoah is released, a little voice in my head says, "Dollar for dollar, your Nazis are still your best entertainment bargain!"
But "Downfall" ("Der Untergang") provokes no such voice. For one thing, it is not a self-congratulatory American film but a self-lacerating German one. For another, it is not about the victims but about the victimizers. By focusing tightly on Adolf Hitler and his inner circle, hunkered down in the "Führerbunker" while the Red Army blasts its way into Berlin, this film depicts the Nazis not as Them but as Us.
Naturally, this disconcerts some people. For example, when "Downfall" premiered in Germany, it was sharply criticized in the highbrow weekly "Die Zeit" by the eminent director Wim Wenders. By portraying Hitler on a human scale, Wenders argued, the film effectively denies the global scale of his wickedness. The subsequent debate has been over whether it is acceptable to portray Adolf Hitler as human (which the fine Swiss actor Bruno Ganz definitely does). To that question the answer is easy: Yes. It is not only acceptable but necessary to portray Hitler as human. Had he been a demon, then humanity would be off the hook.
But the real question is one of scale. "Downfall" focuses on four sympathetic characters: Tarudl Junger, Hitler’s naive young secretary; Peter, a 13-year-old boy trying to be a war hero; Dr. Schenck, an army medic harrowed by the suffering of ordinary Berliners; and Albert Speer, high-toned architect to the Führer. To foreground the plight of these four is to background the horror being done in their name. If that were the sum total of "Downfall," then Wenders would be right.
But that is not the sum total of "Downfall." Along with these four characters, this film gives us one of the most convincing movie Nazis ever seen: not Hitler, Himmler, Göring, or Göbbels, but Magda, Göbbels’ wife, played stunningly by Corinna Harfouch, a renowned theater actress from the former East Germany.
More than any man in uniform, Magda is a true soldier of the Reich. Her rigidly correct manner, her impeccable dress, and above all, her attentiveness to her six rosy-cheeked Aryan children all suggest an iron-willed commitment to the lofty vision of National Socialism that will not flinch in the face of duty, no matter how unpleasant. And sure enough, when it comes time to kill her six children rather than allow them to grow up in a fallen world, Magda does so smoothly, efficiently, and (here is the nub) proudly.
Whether sick, crazy, or coldly sadistic, the besetting sin of movie Nazis is always violence. But this is inaccurate. The true sin, the defining trait, of the Nazi movement was not violence but pride. And in Magda we see that ultimate evil at work. Her love for her children is not overcome by anger, fear, or blood lust. It is overcome - easily - by twisted pride. Dante put the proud at the very bottom of Hell, far below the incontinent and violent. If you ever wondered why, "Downfall" will make it abundantly clear.