Friday, March 17, 2017

Netflix Review: Downfall



Downfall is a strangely compelling film. Not only do we know the ending, and the fate of all major characters, before we start, but we also have no heroes to root for, and the villains... well, we really couldn't hate them any more, could we?

And yet, unlike so many yawn-inducing historical dramas, this one holds our rapt attention throughout, and leaves us with much food for thought afterwards. Why is that? Are we still so fascinated with all things Hitler? Do we find satisfaction in seeing evil men and their immediate enablers get their due? Does the girl-next-door character of Traudl Junge provide enough of a different perspective to make us care--something impossible to do with the more important historical figures?

I suppose all of the above are true, but there's more depth to this particular version of the well-known story. The claustrophobic setup, both in the physical location and in the sense of immediate, inevitable doom, allows us to see all the players as we perhaps had not seen them before, at least outside of obscure historical documents.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the claim that Downfall humanizes Hitler. Some would even say he is shown as sympathetic. I admit there are moments where, having been accustomed to think of him as an abstraction, a stand-in for "monster," the viewer is surprised that he is, after all, just a man. He is kind to his employees. He clearly loves Eva. He personally makes sure his dog dies a quick death rather than starve in the ruins of Berlin or be shot by a passerby. It's almost tempting, especially considering his many temper tantrums, the best of which has been turned into a Youtube sensation, to attribute the horrors he inflicted on the world to insanity.

That, however, would be a lie. After all, the movie provides us enough moments of Hitler, perfectly relaxed and coherent, casually dismissing compassion as weakness; refusing to grant mercy to his former associates and German people alike; and counting the destruction of Jews as his crowning achievement. He might be delusional in some ways, particularly in his insistence during the first half of the movie that a military victory is still possible. But he isn't insane. If anything, while most of his underlings (and his lover, for that matter) spend their remaining time drinking themselves into oblivion, Hitler doesn't as much as break his dietary restrictions. His very last meal is vegetarian, and he makes a point to thank the cook after he is finished.

Nor is Hitler alone in this duality. Martha Goebbels is at once a proud mother and a cold-blooded killer. She also is sane, at least by legal definition, choosing loyalty to her lost cause over life itself. In perhaps the best demonstration of the power that evil ideals can have over seemingly normal human beings, she methodically poisons her children in their sleep. If the future is not the way she had envisioned, then it's not worth having. In her mind, it's as simple and logical as that.

Mind you, there are a few sympathetic characters sprinkled in: a father trying to convince his last remaining child to come home from the street fighting; doctors trying to save lives in the midst of carnage; even one of Hitler's close associates risking his life in coming back to Berlin in the last-ditch attempt to convince the boss to give up on the needless destruction. And then, of course, there is our nominal protagonist Traudl Junge, a young secretary who is so clueless of her surroundings that she takes the appearance of the Goebbels children in the bunker as a sign of hope rather than a harbinger of doom. The scene when she finally understands the truth is one of the more heartbreaking moments because we realize just how very innocent she is.

Except... as the older, wiser Traudl reminds us at the conclusion of the story, youth is no excuse, and it wasn't a case of true innocence, but willful ignorance. At the age of twenty-two, this smart, poised woman went to work for one of the most evil men in history and ended up providing a measure of comfort to him in his last days. As sins go, it's a minor one, but it's easy to understand why she spent her life feeling guilty for not choosing a different path.

I think in the end, Traudl is the character who discovers the lesson of the movie, and the reason it's so fascinating to watch. Fantastical creatures, cackling hags and monsters under the bed make for great fiction because storytellers are able to distill evil to its essence. But in real life it's very likely to appear only as a middle-aged man with funny hair who loves his dog and eats his spinach. As the last line of the movie reminds us, it's possible to find out the truth. All we can hope for in our own lives is to see the truth before it's too late.

Highly recommended.

Purchase Downfall on Amazon

Traudl Junge's memoir on Amazon