Kino (There’s only one Kino)

Having finally got around to seeing ‘Downfall’, I thought I would share some thoughts on the film itself, its relationship with certain interpretations of German history, and its kinship with another film dealing with modern Germany, ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’. Contains spoilers, in as much as I talk about what happened, but since it actually did happen, is that a spoiler? Did anyone expect the Titanic not to sink at the end of the film? Or have I just spoiled that for the four remaining people who haven’t seen it? Anyway, the first half is mostly about the film and the second half is a bit of a polemic. I got carried away and its quite long – sorry. I hope at least that it is interesting and provocative.

Downfall and the Depiction of Hitler

First of all, I was shocked to find out that ‘Downfall’ was made in 2004. I felt like it was out last year and I’d ‘just’ missed seeing it at the cinema. Whoops. Hundreds of spoof YouTube videos – here are some of thebest’ (I prefer the postmodern metaspoofs) – had not managed to put me off seeing it, so in the midst of a belting thunderstorm, I sat down to watch to the crumbling of the Third Reich. Of course, by the time the action switches to Berlin very early in the film, the Third Reich has well and truly crumbled – what the viewer principally sees are the death throes of the German government, and the devastating effect on the German people wrought not only by Hitler’s messianic callousness, but also the pathetic inertia of his followers (as well as the lingering brutality of both civilian vigilantes and S.S. zealots). A situation in which everybody knows the Führer is mad but nobody dare say so: Nazism as the tragic conclusion of the Emperor’s New Clothes, which in one sense it was – a deadly illustration of the crippling nature of a leadership cult. The greatest achievement of this film, though, is to illustrate the paradoxical human behaviour which caused the Götterdämmerung of Nazi Berlin’s final days. Many Germans – Nazi politicians, S.S. officers, ordinary soldiers and civilians – are shown to exhibit an irrational loyalty to their leader. At the same time this loyalty is justified on the grounds of self-preservation, as it seems to be common knowledge that anybody who breaks rank is a traitor and will be punished. Yet with the exceptions of Hitler himself and a handful of his most rabid lieutenants, everybody is aware that the only sensible course of action is surrender.

If it were fiction, this would make for a fascinating tension. A hypothetical viewer with no idea who Hitler was or what happened in the bunker would wonder at which point the ‘sensible Nazis’ would wink at one another, declare the game to be up, cart Adolf off to the asylum and negotiate a marginally less humiliating peace.* With the knowledge of precisely what happened though, the frustration is almost unbearable. Hitler’s complete mental and nervous breakdown should have granted the opportunity for somebody to point out the Emperor’s metaphorical nudity. Instead, there are raised eyebrows, frightened glances, grumbled frustrations and occasional defections. This fits rather well with what we know of criticism of (and opposition to) Hitler within the army and the Nazi party. Michael Burleigh, in his book The Third Reich, is rather generous to those army officers who did plot against Hitler (my own impression is that, in the main, they were aristocrats who found him to be boorish and vulgar, and were perfectly willing to work within the Nazi state structure until their own security was jeopardised). Within his inner circle, however, there was hardly any open dissent; plenty of petty squabbles, insults, and jealousies, but also a good measure of delusion and blind faith. The possibility that at least two or three of the men who ran Germany by that stage had severe mental health problems should not be dismissed. This simply serves to highlight the voluntary insanity being practised by those around them. Furthermore, for the bulk of the upper echelons of the Nazi party (those who we can assume were not mentally incapacitated), it reveals the terrifying power of the movement’s ideology.

As I interpret it, the film is told mainly through three sets of eyes, each sympathetic to a degree: Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge played by Alexandra Maria Lara (‘Control’, ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’); Professor Ernst-Günther Schenck, played by Christian Berkel; and Albert Speer, the excellent Heino Ferch. Each represents a slightly hackneyed trope, but they are cleverly used as possible routes into understanding what is a singularly extreme moment in history. Speer is cast as the ‘good Nazi’, a civilian who believed in the ‘positive’ aspects of the regime but thinks he has demonstrated some sort of restraint or integrity. Schenck is both the ‘good doctor’ and the ‘good soldier’, walking a tightrope between obeying orders and the preservation of life. The portrayal of Schenck as a sympathetic character has been criticised since he may have had a role in medical experiments at a concentration camp. Traudl Junge is the wide-eyed young German (or Germany?), whose personal awe in the presence of the Führer sets her on a path to self-destruction from which she is incredibly lucky to escape. Notably, all three lived to old age in real life. We are, I think, meant to understand that despite the apocalypse they were each involved with, there can at least be some sort of accommodation with one’s past, if not redemption. Nonetheless, we are also supposed to see that it took the collusion and support of sympathetic characters for the Nazi government to last as long as it did.

A fourth recurrent narrative belongs to Peter, an alarmingly blonde young boy who, like Traudl, has been duped by the rhetoric of National Socialism. He represents hope and innocence, his startlingly bright hair atop the black Hitler Youth outfit a literal beacon in the chaos, showing the possibility that a seed of renewal can survive the horrors around him. His ‘duping’ is different from Traudl’s, it being more the fascination of a young boy for shiny, loud and violent toys. He is shaken from his waking dream by the corpse of Inge, a comically Brunhilda-ish teenager who has been on the sharp end of a murder-suicide in the face of the Russian advance. Peter’s father – shown to be bitter, cynical and lacking an arm through an injury we are to assume was suffered as a combatant in the First World War – represents the ‘noble’ older generation of Germans, piggybacked by the Nazis to power and hamstrung by their own overblown patriotism. The final act of the Nazi vigilantes is to kill Peter’s parents, and thus to bury the reputation of the older generation.

Ulrich Matthes is tremendous as Joseph Goebbels. He broods and flickers throughout, a kind of diabolic Loki or Puck, until in the final minutes of the drama he explodes into terrifying life, transformed from a ridiculous ideologue into the embodiment of the regime’s fatalistic self-immolation. Magda Goebbels (played by Corinna Harfouch)  would seem darkly comic were she a fictional character. Her hysterical and shrill proclamations of devotion to National Socialism are absolutely ridiculous. It is easy to see the seam of humour mined by Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’ even if good manners have taught us to pretend otherwise – the scene with the children singing in the bunker is like a surreal pastiche of ‘The Sound of Music’. The narrative strand that leads to the murder of her own children by Magda Goebbels (with help from Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger) is handled quite brilliantly, with the anaesthetizing of the eldest and wisest child left until last, and not without violence – emphasising that this was very much informed by the ideological inuring against killing, and not some sentimental or kindly euthanasia. Only when she comes to break the ampoule of cyanide in her eldest daughter’s mouth does Magda flinch. In the aftermath her husband is revealed as a pathetic coward, though he recovers his poise sufficiently to perform a murder-suicide with his appalling wife.

A key moment for understanding the film, I feel, comes in the bunker conversation during which Albert Speer indicates to Traudl that Magda Goebbels is going to kill her children rather than, as she puts it, to ‘let them grow up in a world without National Socialism’. This brief scene was among the most powerful I have seen for a long time. It relied heavily on the ability of both actors to convey subtleties without much dialogue, and they do so wonderfully. Traudl looks like she is about to be sick, but has to keep her decorum in the highly-charged atmosphere of the bunker. Speer’s knowing smirk is contorted by impotent confusion as he comprehends Traudl’s horror, and somehow his flawed humanity is revealed.

Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) was, as expected, completely potty, and delivers some of the film’s most memorable moments. Swing-dancing on the table in the middle of an artillery barrage; confessing to kicking Hitler’s dog when he isn’t looking; and, importantly, verbalising the difference between the ‘private Hitler’ and Hitler-as-Führer – she must have clung to this distinction with a death grip. Bruno Ganz as Hitler himself has had countless plaudits for his performance and rightly so – a huge responsibility, reportedly being the first German actor to portray Hitler on screen. Enough has been written elsewhere about the accuracy of his accent and mannerisms, though I would point out the use of some symbolism as he gets more crumpled, broken and diminutive as the Russians close in on the bunker.

Towards the end of the film, as Traudl emerges – beautiful and absurdly unblemished – into the hellish scenes of above-ground Berlin, she sees for the first time the true impact of her Nazism. She – the naïve, young, obedient, and nauseatingly flattered German – gradually loses her wide-eyed innocence. It is of great credit to the film-makers that her naivety is shown to be largely foolish, but also that she constitutes only a part of the representation of ‘ordinary Germans’ – both the Speer and Schenck tropes are fully aware of the nature of their government, and while each has a moral line, it only came to be drawn in the dark and pessimistic days of total war. (I say ‘ordinary Germans’, but really I mean ‘ordinary people’, because there is nothing specifically German about fascism. Certain historical factors lent German fascism its peculiar characteristics, but they were social and structural influences, and were hardly genetic.)

I found concluding pairing of Traudl Junge and little Peter rather touching, but guiltily so, because here was the inevitable – if mercifully brief – cipher of hope: the journey by good old honest bicycle (not anything which looks like a modern, evil tank) under sun-dappled trees (the nature of the Germany which survived the temporary Nazi aberration and will recover its former bucolic charm…). But then something wonderfully effective happens. The real-life Junge, who we had seen briefly at the beginning of the film as an elderly lady, returns to tell the story of how she (now representing, we must assume, a large segment of the German civilian population) had not understood the nature or extent of the crimes undertaken by the Nazis and their ancillaries among the wider populace. She makes quite clear, though, that youth (and by association naivety) was not an acceptable reason for this, but nonetheless indicates that this was an excuse used for many years. “I wasn’t able to see the connection with my own past,” she says; “I was satisfied that I wasn’t personally to blame.” That changed when she noticed a memorial plaque to a victim of the Nazi regime born in the same year as her and executed the year she began working for Hitler. At that point, she says, she realised that “it would have been possible to find things out.” And there’s the rub.

The film is fascinating and intense, though it is only a snapshot – the ‘madness’ of these last days of Nazism should not be read backwards. I do wonder whether much of the hostility towards the film comes from the assumption that viewers would see it as representative of Nazism as a whole, rather than of its surreal endgame. This would be a gross error, as the system of government was institutionalized and pretty stable prior to 1941, and ran along quite rational and self-interested grounds for many years before imploding under the strain of Hitler’s expansionist whims (I hope it is obvious that I am not making a value judgement here – clearly the aims of this rational self-interest were morally absolutely appalling – that’s a value judgement, by the way, just in case anyone really thinks one is necessary). Internal resistance was brutally crushed in the 1930s, and popular support for the government remained high even into the middle of the war (though the nature of the beast means that we can’t check with IPSOS MORI for the precise approval ratings). This is surely the really frightening aspect of the Nazi movement – that in times of peace (if not economic stability), it was able to take over Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia almost without a shot being fired (no thanks, of course, to the spineless Western democracies). When one considers that the aims and intentions of the party had been made fairly clear since the mid-1920s, this dubious achievement is even more chilling.

I was deeply impressed with ‘Downfall’. It was criticised heavily for its depiction of Hitler as being too human, which is simply the daftest objection I can imagine to a historical work. The transformation of Hitler into an unspeakable monster is a cop-out of epic proportions. First, such an approach panders to the most mindlessly Manichean notions of good and evil (not suggesting for a moment that Nazism was anything other than a very bad thing, just that it is pointless to declare it as such and then stop the conversation. Learning why such a very bad thing appealed to millions of people can only be hindered by saying ‘Hitler was a monster who caused the Second World War and the Holocaust but he was defeated by good people, The End.’).** In any case, Hitler and Goebbels are shown to have not an ounce of sympathy for the plight of the German people, and claim that ‘they have brought it on themselves’. I find it hard to believe any impressionable soul is going to watch this film and start thinking “Well, that Hitler wasn’t all bad. He callously invited the destruction of his capital city and people, but that is more than made up for by the fact that he loved his dog and was even quite polite to his secretary.”

Second, it is used as an excuse for the behaviour of those millions of supporters, who arguably played the key role in the functioning of Nazism – moreso than one political leader ever could. Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men demonstrates beyond all doubt that the functioning of policy under Nazism was carried out by ordinary people in plain view. Historians have, in the main, seen things this way for decades now. It is juvenile and counter-productive to keep pretending that some magic spell had been cast, so it continues to disappoint me that film critics would prefer some fairy tale version of history in which the house fell down on the Wicked Witch and everything went back to normal (see ‘Getting away with it’ below).

Instead, it is much more useful to see Hiter as a product of his specific historical situation – an extreme example, of course, but one of a generation of fascist leaders, a maniac first among equals, who was not merely allowed but empowered to do his worst by the German population at the time. Whom does it serve to maintain a taboo on discussing the ‘real Hitler’? The argument between the critics (and some historians) is well-documented here, so I won’t go into it any further at this point (Ian Kershaw hits the nail on the head). At this point I will simply quote Churchill in one of his less deranged moments (clearly, as he had gone to the trouble of paraphrasing Marx): “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.”

There were also criticisms of the film’s omission of the rapes of at least two, and possibly three, of the women who escaped the bunker. As a representation of the estimated two million rapes which were committed by the invading Russians, there is a strong argument for at least referring to this. However, the film-makers may have wished to avoid a similar controversy to that which occurred when Anthony Beevor, author of Berlin and Stalingrad (both of which I highly recommend), said the number of rapes came to revise his view of the male gender. His view was interpreted as a justification, and it was implied – completely wrongly, in my view – that he saw the mass rapes as some sort of deserved punishment.  The issue has become so vexed by the continuing ideological Cold War that it is bound to raise charges of either glorifying or demonising the liberating/invading Red Army. It shouldn’t, but it does.

‘Getting away with it’

The engagement with history in such a meaningful, profound and critical manner is so admirable when held up against many of the simplistic feel-good kitsch marathons that pass for ‘war movies’. Recently, there have been several excellent engagements by German film-makers with the country’s own past. ‘The Lives of Others’ comes to mind, but I would really like to say a little bit about ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’ (2008), which in one sense is a sequel to ‘Downfall’ (and not only because the excellent Bruno Ganz and Alexandra Maria Lara both turn up in that film too).

There is a very clever, mischievous line in ‘Downfall’, almost a throwaway, so ridiculous as to be immediately dismissed. Goebbels says “the western Allies will realize that only we can hold off the Bolsheviks. We’re the last bulwark against the Asian hordes.” He was wrong to hope that such a realignment would happen under a Nazi government (though Halifax in Britain and Lindbergh in the U.S. among many, many others would have been in favour of such a settlement.) However, with the removal of the ‘worst’ 90,000 offenders from society (eleven of whom were given the death sentence, and three life imprisonment), precisely such a situation came to pass within a matter of months.

De-nazification’ can only be seen for what it was now the Cold War is over – an empty political stunt. The governing of Europe’s largest country for a period of more than twelve years involved many hundreds of thousands of mid-ranking officials (see Robert Gellately’s excellent book Backing Hitler). With the rapid transition from global alliance to Cold War in the short period after the war (even between Potsdam and Yalta there was a serious deterioration in the relationship between the U.S.S.R. and the West) it suited the occupying powers to undertake a rapid, symbolic ‘cleansing’ of the Nazi high command at the Nuremberg Trials, but to leave the bulk of society untouched (there were fears both of chaos if ‘competent’ bureaucrats were punished and also of a resurgence of German communism if positions of relative local power opened up).

The lack of a just or lasting settlement in West Germany after the war can be seen as a direct antecedent of the outburst of violence in the late 1960s (and which lasted throughout the 1970s). The film ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’ does not make a great deal of this aspect of the terrorism, but however misguided, it is clear from the group’s literature and choice of targets that they felt they were punishing surviving relics of Nazi rule who had ‘got away with it’. Perry Anderson has written very well on this subject for the case of Italy, where the removal of local bureaucrats and politicians who had supported the Mussolini regime was absolutely minimal (note that Italy, as well as Japan, suffered extreme revolutionary violence in the 1970s with the Red Brigades. It wasn’t difficult for these groups to portray many of their targets as functionaries, and fairly high-up functionaries in some cases, of the Axis states who had escaped punishment).

Puzzlingly, The ‘Baader-Meinhof Complex’ was directed by the man who made ‘Body of Evidence’ and ‘Confessions of a Sorority Girl’, but here Uli Edel has constructed what I think is one of the better – and certainly more exciting – films of the last decade. Here I run in to some difficulties, as while the film did receive some negative criticism for glorifying the protagonists, the vast majority of commentators saw their depiction as “bloodthirsty”, “ruthless” and “brutal”. I thought that applied pretty accurately to Baader, who was clearly a psychopath, and to a large extent to Brigitte Mohnhaupt, a single-minded ideologue. Gudrun Ensslin, while ‘brutal’, is much more complex though (I find the fracturing of the relationship between she and her father, a pacificist preacher, one of the most engaging aspects of the film), and the portrayal of Ulrike Meinhof was very balanced and somewhat sympathetic. Interestingly there were echoes of the criticism of ‘Downfall’ here – for the latter it was “don’t show Hitler as being nice to his secretary and dog in case people sympathise with him”, and for this, “don’t show the Red Army Faction as idealistic, attractive young people in case people sympathise with them”. Both films have been widely praised for their historical accuracy though, and if we are to understand why so many people did sympathise with Hitler (or indeed with the Baader-Meinhof guerrilla), it is crucial to see things as they were. Anyhow, I didn’t want to say a too much about ‘TBMC’ itself, but just to pick out the thread which links it back to ‘Downfall’ and the end of the Second World War.

Between ‘Downfall’ and ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’, two hugely important parts of modern German history have been given sensitive and critical treatment.*** The honours course is, obviously, to slog through the c. 90 hours of ‘Heimat. I watched the first part, more or less until the election of Hitler, but this winter I am intending to go back and start again. If I ever reach the fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond, I want a nice, shiny badge. But not like the grim little trinket that Hitler pinned on Magda Goebbels’ lapel.

* Was it too late for a negotiated peace? Probably. Had von Stauffenberg’s bomb plot worked in 1944 though, who knows what kind of  ‘moderate’, less expansionist Nazi government may have survived.

** It also prevents the most important question of all – would we do anything different under the same circumstances? It fries the brain to say anything other than “of course, I’m no Nazi”, so the natural reaction is to say either say it was Hitler’s fault, or that it was something specific to Germany. That’s too easy though, sorry.

*** Offhand, I can’t think of two British films (for example) that quite get so close to the nub of the matter. On the repression of Ireland, Loach’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ would be in with a shout were it not quite so misty-eyed, and though Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ is a tremendous piece of art, it is almost dreamlike and feels somewhat depoliticised as a consequence. Suggestions most welcome of course.

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Published in: on July 10, 2010 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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