Springtime for Hitler? Not quite just yet

Ronald Hilton asked for a comment about Bernd Eichinger's film "Der Untergang". I sent through a Guardian article and I felt uneasy: it failed to capture the essence of the moment. Too many nasty words, so much "monster" that you would almost think it was a film about the Munsters. Although I have not seen Eichinger's film, German television is now rife with clips.  I became more and more uneasy as I saw more and more.  This comment however, from the FAZ encapsulates my feelings about the current film's merits and ends with the real question.
Eye to eye with Hitler: Eichinger fails
by Thomas Schimd

He is our steadiest companion. Others, Adenauer and Brandt, Kennedy and Gorbachev, have come and gone. But Adolf Hitler is here to stay. His image has not faded a bit. He flits across television screens almost every day. But that does not make us immune to him, not by a long shot. Because Germans didn't do more to fight him and because his actions were so atrocious, he still haunts us. Or put more negatively, the fascination emanating from his person has not subsided. That also means that there is no easy way of talking about him. In fact, when the subject turns to Hitler, he seems to retreat into the fiery realm of taboo. People are quick to point out that this does not lend itself to historical clarity. Critics say we need to loosen up. After all, it's the 21st century, high time to relegate Hitler to the realm of history. We are mature enough to end the moral state of emergency that has characterized our relationship with Hitler. From this perspective, it's a sign of emancipation that a German-made film portrays Hitler as a broken man, one who arouses our sympathy. Of course, there were plenty of critics out there sounding the alarms bells - used up though they may be - in the run-up to the first showing of Bernd Eichinger's film, Der Untergang.

So is “The Downfall,“ as the movie is called in English, an emancipatory venture or is it akin to the fall of man? It is neither. The Downfall belongs to the kind of film that claims to do something it can't: tell it like it really was. Such films overwhelm the audience and nurture the illusion of having witnessed events first-hand, events that historians can only piece together using the available, sometimes contradictory, pieces of individual testimony. There is a wealth of very different, contradicting material about Hitler's death. A feature film obviously has to make a choice. Naturally, The Downfall feeds on the apocalyptic imagery of stories of the dictator's last day in the bunker of the Reich Chancellery. Eichinger acts quite naive when he says that his greatest challenge in making the film was “to achieve the highest accuracy of an authentic account.“ Does the producer seriously think that it is possible to reconstruct an event so immersed in the fascination of terror and lay open its core free of all emotions? This movie has no other choice but to feed on the dark myth of Hitler. It might be legitimate, but it has nothing to do with creating an historical account. Eichinger's film is an epic, nothing more and nothing less. It neither emancipates nor leads down the slippery slope of original sin. It is trivial.

Still, the film has been sold as boldly treading new ground. This sheds some light on the German effort to look national socialism in the eye. We appeared utterly surprised to learn that the mass murderer was also a human being, that the loneliness of his final days could arouse pity. Obviously, people were surprised that Hitler was not the blood-thirsty beast that the left-revolutionary agitation art depicted him to be. We were also surprised to find out that Goebbels was made of flesh and blood, not a wired monster or an alien. What image did we have of Germany under Hitler that allowed Eichinger to sell this to us as a revolutionary discovery?
The movie's expected success already shows one thing: Much of the critical effort to come to terms with the World War II has been for nothing. It has done nothing but keep the real subject matter at arm's length. All those TV series and documentaries that portrayed the Third Reich as a collection of psychopaths, as a time in which people spent the whole day marching, torturing, murdering and screaming Heil Hitler were actually counter-educational. This depiction buried the question of how and why it all happened. The success of Eichinger's new film is nurtured by this failure.

The film is based on two books, on the notes of Hitler's secretary Gertraud Junge, who died in 2002, and on Joachim Fest's “The Downfall.“ Fest rightly insisted that Hitler was the key to understanding the era, even though many have rejected the idea of seeing the Nazi regime only through the person of Hitler, saying that would turn national socialism into a one-man-show and take the blame away from the Germans. But without Hitler, there is reason to assume that there would not have been a World War II or a Holocaust. So understanding the figure is critical. Eichinger's movie focuses on his end and there is nothing new in that. His failed and poor Hitler is only the older brother of the Hitler we've been shown so often, the voracious freak. Actor Bruno Ganz does not overcome Charlie Chaplin's caricature, he only creates a new one.

Another way of putting Hitler on screen would have been more rewarding, but also more precarious. Hitler, the leader, who almost ended up as a social outcast, was one of the most brilliant politicians of the 20th century. He enthused the masses and was an extraordinarily successful party leader and statesman for over a decade, who not only impressed the Germans. A lot of research has been done on this part of the story, but it has never been shown. To tell this story without resorting to the usual monster repertoire could be a worthwhile undertaking. We would see a Hitler on screen who was wanted, honored and respected and who founded and controlled a mass movement from scratch - a Hitler we've long since filed away. To look this Hitler in the eye would be a lot harder than looking into the eyes of a failed dictator.

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on:   http://wais.stanford.edu/ E-mail to hilton@stanford.edu. Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 23, 2004