I’ve just come back from seeing Downfall, Bernd Eichinger’s film based on Joachim Fest’s book Der Untergang (The Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker, The Last Days of the Third Reich). I went partly because I’ve been fascinated by the story of what went on in that claustrophobic bunker ever since reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s terrific account, The Last Days of Hitler, and partly because of the controversy the film has stirred up in Germany and elsewhere. According to this report in the Guardian, for example, historians have panned the film because of its allegedly sympathetic portrayal of the coterie which surrounded Hitler in his last days. The article says, in part:
“Soldiers who appeared to be good, solid troops were probably really up to their necks in war crimes of the first order,” said Professor David Cesarani, a specialist in Jewish history.
Peter Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway, University of London, criticised the characterisation of Albert Speer, the doctor Ernst-Günter Schenck and Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge. “We have only one source for Albert Speer’s claim that he confessed in the bunker to having sabotaged Hitler’s orders, and that is his own memoirs,” he said.
“Traudl Junge [Hitler’s Secretary] never admitted she was a member of the Nazi party; but of course she was a member of Nazi organisations – far from the innocent, naive young woman we see in the film. And Dr Schenck was involved in performing various experiments on people in concentration camps.”
Prof Cesarani said: “As for [Wilhelm] Mohnke, I never thought I would see a film that portrayed sympathetically a man who was responsible for a massacre of British troops outside Dunkirk; just one of the things he did.”
I’m sure there’s something in that, but I don’t think anyone could come away from the film feeling that it was really ‘soft’ on Nazism. The portrayal of Hitler by Bruno Ganz is a spellbinding and utterly credible picture of a crazed tyrant.
The strangest thing of all, though, was the eerie convergence between Hitler’s view of the German people and the views of the Allies who felt that the Germans had brought their destruction upon themselves. At several points in the film, the Fuhrer rants on about his indifference to the suffering of German civilians in the closing months of the war. His logic was that since they had elevated him to power, they deserved everything that happened to them. They hadn’t measured up to the role of master-race and therefore deserved extinction.
Another thought: this is a film you have to see in a cinema. Since all the action takes place in a city that is under constant bombardment, you need a powerful, surround-sound system to convey the ‘crump’ and vibration of the bombing. It won’t be anything like as effective on a home DVD system.