Doing a film about Adolf Hitler offers a challenge that few filmmakers want to grapple with making this monstrous person seem human, but not too human. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel has managed to succeed in getting that balance right in Downfall, the story of Hitler and the last days of the Third Reich. In the aftermath he garnered a best Foreign Film Oscar nomination, as well as considerable controversy in Germany and beyond.
The L Magazine: Did you feel the weight of this subject on your shoulders?
Oliver Hirschbiegel: It’s definitely quite a responsibility because I was the first German director to do so. I do what I always do when I direct a film. I try and stay honest with the source of the characters that I’m depicting and of course with the audience. On the other side, when you do a film like this, you have to do your
homework. So you do all this research and study documentaries and ask people who were there detailed questions, like how did you brush your teeth and wash your clothes and what you ate. That gives you kind of a security.
The L: Are you surprised at people’s fascination with this film?
The L: When did you decide to incorporate material from the Traudl Junge documentary (Hitler’s secretary) and her testimony into the film?
OH: The concept was in there from the beginning, it was always the idea to start with her and end with her because that made the connection to today. Even though she’s dead for three years now, she stands for all the old people who are still alive and can give us answers to questions that haven’t been answered before.
The L: Were books a primary source of research?
OH: Oh yes of course. I read them all. I don’t keep the books at home. This stuff is very unpleasant material. At some point I didn’t want to have that stuff at home. They’re in the cellar.
The L: How did you decide to cast Bruno Ganz as Hitler?
OH: He was the first choice because to me he is the best actor of the German language who is alive at the moment. And then I did this drawing of Hitler as Bruno and it was frightening. He looks like him too. I don’t know what I would have done if he had given me the thumbs down.
The L: Where was your family during the war?
OH: My mother was young, she was 13. I think at the end of the war she was 15. They took the kids out to the countryside to be safe from the bombings. And all of these kids were members of the youth organizations and they believed Adolph Hitler was god. And she told us how upset they were and how completely broken when they learned that the war was over and Hitler was dead. The world was breaking apart.
The L: Do you feel it was important to address the people who were unable to act during the war?
OH: I think it was very important to show that atmosphere of complete obedience to this man who was already sick and down. And it was just totally obvious that the war would be lost and nobody did anything.
They could have just put him in a closet and throw the key away and no one did so. Even after this man is dead they still follow his orders. That is a strange attitude and it’s hard to understand today. And for me it was important to recreate that strange atmosphere.
The L: What films have influenced you?
OH: That’s a tough question. I can tell you who my hero is. Howard Hawks. He touched all the doors. He was great at anything he did. He never tried to trick the audience. He was a very honest man. He was a true storyteller. And that’s what I’m aiming for — to become a master at story-telling.It’s not the usual thing for a German director to get such a great amount of recognition, so I’m a bit surprised.Brad Balfour