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Thursday
Apr302009

Downfall

Happy families, begins a famous Russian novel, are all alike in their felicity; unhappy families, however, are all unhappy in their own way.  The sad nonsense of such a generalization notwithstanding, one notices a grain of truth: we are fascinated by what is not right probably because most of the world is more or less right, and good and evil prove to be no exceptions.  Throughout man's history what has been deemed good has simultaneously been deemed boring – much sadder nonsense than Tolstoy's gimmicky opening – because it is always difficult to live among people who are your superiors in piety, righteousness or goodness.  No one, you will hear ironically, wants to marry a saint.  For that reason as well as from our inherent attraction to people and ideas which seem to offer us radical change, freedom, and a break from the commonness of the everyday, we tend to trust rebels, firebrands, and revolutionaries.  True enough, they are often exciting and charming demagogues who will lie without compunction until they gain what they want.  Yet what is remarkable about evil and the despots who espouse it is their uniformity.  They all want absolute trust, absolute power, absolute obedience, absolute credit, and no responsibility; they all want to exploit others to fulfil the dreams they are too weak to realize themselves; they all want others to die so that they can live on in glory.  Whenever one order is not obeyed, they claim they have been betrayed from the very beginning, that everyone has failed them, that they alone were able to accomplish the goals that took the lives of millions, that they alone deserve their honor and power.  Such rantings may incur the label of asylum chants, but it is always too easy to impute evil to insanity (a favorite tactic of modern jurisprudence).  Real reptilian evil is cold, calculating, and inexorably vengeful, quite the opposite of the madman who will often inflict his punishment on random people without cause or concern.  And if you have always pictured the main character of this fine film as a lunatic, you may soon change your mind.

We begin with the real Traudl Junge, née Humps, shortly before her death a few years ago, and we can say without fear of perjury that she does not rank among the earth's brightest mammals.  Her tediously hackneyed comments might trick an ingenuous listener into thinking that she is both contrite and profound, but these are words that should never be used in conjunction with Traudl Junge.  Junge belongs to that group of people who are easily impressed with the world (and, consequently, with the faces whose fame wreathes every newsstand) because they have nothing to contribute to it.  So after we hear the real Junge, we meet her fictional understudy (Alexandra Maria Lara) trudging through the woods behind German soldiers in 1942 Munich.  She is one of five young women who have volunteered to serve as the secretary to the Reich's chancellor (Bruno Ganz, in a role that guarantees his immortality), and you can see this obsession on their soft white faces as they lean over in unison to peer into his office.  This is a matter of being a superstar, not a mass murderer the likes of which history has rarely seen.  Ganz, like the historical figure he plays, is not a tall man, stooping, grizzled, his left hand fluttering behind him like wounded, dying game.  He interviews the secretaries and picks Humps because she is from Munich and also probably because she is not too hard on the eyes.  Despite her miserable failure in her first dictation she is awarded the job, yet another example of the typical impulsive and non-competitive methods of a totalitarian regime – which is where we realize this regime has much in common with a spoiled child who requires that his petty demands be met immediately.  And at the peak of National Socialism's dominion another young person has been converted into a willing accomplice, if a rather clueless one. 

This brief introduction takes no more than ten minutes of a film that approaches one hundred and fifty.  The rest will bring us to Berlin at the end of April 1945, starting from April 20, the leader's fifty-sixth birthday.  The war has long since become an exercise in futility, the German population has been massacred, and even the mastermind behind the chaos wallows in self-doubt and, to a lesser degree, self-pity.  Our film will cover his last ten days, from a celebration of his birth that involves no celebrating to his marriage that lasts barely a day, to his death by his own wicked hand.  In a way, this is a biography of all he has wrought, from the destruction of his forces to his own, because all he left us with was destruction.  He will walk, hunched over in imminent defeat, among his child soldiers and praise them for having greater fortitude than his generals; he will claim that the German people should be exterminated because this was their choice and they failed in their endeavor; he will scream at anyone who dares disobey the mildest of his whims, although he apparently has no idea about the debilitation of the German forces and their looming surrender.  What you will never hear, however, is any self-rebuke.  Not a word, not a phrase, not the hint of regret.  When he confesses to an officer that he and his longtime companion Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) will be committing suicide, his main preoccupation is preventing the Russians from "displaying his body in a museum" like a stuffed beast plucked from the wilderness.  That he is ignorant or blind or stupid about Germany's actual military might during his last inglorious days makes for an easy conclusion that he is mad.  But he is not mad; not in the least.  He is still the child that wants his will imposed above all else.  When he orders the court martial and execution of his brother-in-law Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) and Braun pleads for the life of her sister's husband, he bridles at any resistance "to his will."   His "will" – the same "will" in this film – suffices as an explanation because and only because he is their Leader.  A fact that Braun accepts as she has accepted so much the last fifteen years without "actually knowing anything about him."

And it is here that all his propaganda, every last sentence dripping with hatred, intolerance, and misanthropy on the behalf of the Germanic peoples, is revealed to be nothing more than a prism for his own shortcomings and neuroses.  He is not embodying the resentment of Versailles for the Germans; a whole nation is embodying his own resentment towards his own failures.  A whole nation must fight his battles for him because he is a coward, a bully and, ultimately, a wretched excuse for a human being.  He screams in histrionic tones about destiny, loyalty, and courage, but what of these noble characteristics has he ever shown Germany?  In his "political testament" (which he dictates to Junge, who floats in and out of the film as scared and stupid as she was at the beginning) he announces that he has committed more than thirty years to the good of the German people, the same people he claims deserve their doom.  Now it is true that he volunteered as a foreigner to fight in their ranks.  But he fought for a sense of belonging, and out of despair, loneliness, and desire to join a violent cause to express his violent intentions.  Germany and their allies served his purposes as much he served theirs.  That equilibrium would soon be shattered by his insufferable arrogance and loathing of everyone and everything, and his debt to humanity may be greater than that of any other human being.  This makes him a monster; but not in any way a madman.

On that point about human beings.  Much positive and negative criticism of Downfall has focused on the humanization of the dictator who permanently ruined Germany's reputation (importantly, this was the first time in German cinema that he was featured as a protagonist), but such commentary misses the mark.  The film's aim is not to humanize at all – their dictator was a human being, of course, albeit as close to devilry as man can come – but to depict events and interpretations of events without one key character missing, the centripetal force of the maelstrom that engulfed the center of European culture and ingenuity and turned it into one of history's most hideous regimes (making the title also an allusion to this famous work).  Ganz's mannerisms and ticks are breathtakingly polished, and his voice has been said to be a near-perfect mimic of the original.  When Braun gazes at a picture of him on a table, we have to blink a few times before deciding whether or not it is Ganz, since his performance in conviction and fluidity easily surpasses all other portrayals of the dictator ever made.  Why Downfall is so perfect in its tones and colors is because it could be the template for the twilight of any despotic regime, any governance by force and hatred which attempted to take full control and no responsibility for an endless thirst for power, wealth, and honor.  It is always the people's fault for voting for a megalomaniac, never the megalomaniac's fault for devising a plan to take over the world; it is always those who empower, often in very dire circumstances, rather than the empowered, who are to blame.   And so why does he end up, as Braun laments, talking about nothing more than "dogs and vegetarian food"?  Because one represents his distance from men and the other his distance from conventional habits and mores; one supposes that his vegetarianism also has to do with his love for animals and contempt for men.  Yet both are individual urges that guide him, habits that interest no one else and which, in truth, have nothing to do with human interaction.  That is why there might be nothing more evil than an abominably spoiled child who thinks he can do anything with impunity.  And those who are initially deprived of such privileges often spend the rest of their lives trying to catch up.

Reader Comments (2)

I was struck by the demeanor of those passionately convinced of the righteousness of national socialism. But for the German coming out of their mouths, one could easily have have mistaken them for neoconservatives: the brainwashed grin, the slight hint of insanity in those twinkling eyes, and (presumably) a bone-crushing handshake.

May 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBernard Sumner

You might very well be right, MRM, especially regarding the wife of the (not so) good doctor. Thanks for your comments.

May 1, 2009 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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