The Banality of Evil

Downfall goes inside Hitler’s bunker during his final days

Directed by Oliver Hirshbiegel

How did it happen? That’s the question at the heart of any story about Adolf Hitler. How did a madman seduce a country filled with smart, educated, urbane, humane, civilized people? Hirshbiegel’s Downfall may not answer that, but it’s a convincing portrait of a 20th-century enigma. It is a Third Reich whose polished brass buttons and shiny boots are covered in the toxic dust of defeat.

Again. How did it happen? Why were Germans so easily led? Or misled. For some, the ignorance defense is the civilian equivalent of Nuremberg’s “just following orders” plea. Marlene Dietrich, speaking to Maximilian Schell in his documentary Marlene, is unequivocal. “Germans knew,” she assures us. Other historical accounts are less clear.

The symbol of perverted innocence in Downfall is Traudl Junge, the Fuhrer’s final stenographer, who was hired as a young wide-eyed schoolgirl in 1942 and witnessed up close the implosion of the Nazi regime in all its gory detail. Playing a disillusioned patriot pulled into a dark vortex of history, Alexandra Maria Lara is stunning. In her transformation from hero-worshipping innocent to horrified bystander she comes across as a groupie who’s just seen a ghost.

Bruno Ganz as the Fuhrer seems to embody the man in all his hand-wringing, shifty-eyed neuroses as his cock-eyed vision of the world crumbles around him. Like someone stubbornly tightening the straps of his own electric chair, he refuses to acknowledge his fate in the face of reason. What strikes you watching these morally corrupt men swallow their bitter pill is their humanity. The entourage of confidantes is depicted as a group of rational maniacs on a misguided quest, calmly accepting their change in fortune with varying degrees of bravery, loyalty and resignation. There’s Propaganda Chief Goebbels, a gaunt and lizardly bureaucrat of venom, and his wife Magda, delusionally sycophantic to the end. Albert Speer, the enigmatic architect with the eye for the theatrical, tells Hitler “you must be on stage when the curtain falls.” Outside the emotionally charged bunker, the film is somewhat less successful. A subplot with a young patriotic boy seems a bit forced, but is probably a needed counterweight to the severity of the main story.

What also feels strange is our ability to feel any measure of empathy for such loathsome historical figures. It helps that we see few if any of their misdeeds first hand. Hitler only briefly alludes to racial purity, and seems genuinely humane to Traudl, his beloved German shepherd and an off-the-rails Eva Braun. It’s like seeing a bully’s punishment but not his crimes.

In the end, whether Traudl is victim or collaborator in the German trauma is a question an entire generation of her countrymen had to face — and still do. For American audiences, for whom Hitler is a punchline on Broadway and dictators are sound bites on CNN, I fear the full import of this film’s historical context will be lost for most. But the social disease that it suggests is a chronic affliction of mankind, still very much in evidence. And for Germans and the world, the nagging unanswered question persists. How did it happen?

Opens February 18 at Film Forum


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