The Third Reich was hammered into the dirt once and for all sixty years ago this month. To celebrate this most fortunate turn of events, I went to see the movie Downfall. (Incidentally the Amazon reviews are very good and worth looking at if you want to know more about the movie.) My short version: It is a 4.5 star movie. Brilliant acting, sets, costumes — impeccable. Bruno Ganz is a very convincing Hitler. The films is shown mainly from the point of view of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, played by a talented and beautiful actress Alexandra Maria Lara, which is an effective way to tell the tale. It loses half a star because the battle scenes, raved about by other reviewers, struck me as inadequate. Mostly people running across rubble-strewn streets and diving to the ground as shells come down. We get only one T-34/85 tank? And we see Hitler pinning an Iron Cross on a kid for killing two Soviet tanks with a panzerfaust, but we don’t see him do it. This is just not sufficient. The capture of Berlin was the crescendo of the Soviet war effort, and this movie conveys nothing of the vastness of what was going on. The people who made this movie should have spent the money to have at least one scene with swarms of Soviet tanks, or a duel between tanks and anti-tank guns, or something. Film-makers used to know how to make massive war movies that were appropriate in scale to their grand themes. They don’t want to spend the money anymore, alas. These are decadent times we are living in. (Where are Lord Lew Grade or Darryl F. Zanuck when you need them?) But this quibble aside, this is far and away the best of the three Hitler-in-the-Bunker movies. You must go see it.
(I had an email exchange with Jonathan about the movie. What follows is the “enhanced DVD” version of that exchange.)
I saw Downfall last night, the new movie about Hitler in the bunker. “My generals are all cowards! They should all be shot! I should have shot them all, like Stalin did!” “The German people were unworthy of my vision!” “I am proud of one thing: I stood up to the Jews!” “Albert, such opportunities! The world was in our grasp!” “We must retake the oil-fields!” All the great one-liners. The generals all just looking at each other nervously, while he goes off on one of his tirades. In true German fashion, they routinely update the situation maps, which once showed Kliest’s panzer columns barreling toward the Caucuses, and Guderian at the gates of Moscow, now showing which neighborhoods of Berlin have been captured in the last few hours. “Mein Fuhrer, the Russian front line is now only about 200 meters from here.” In the background, Soviet shells are constantly going off, shaking the whole place and making the electricity flicker on and off. Toward the end, a bunch of these military gentlemen take the Fuhrer’s route and shoot themselves — a guy in a uniform goes around the corner with a pistol: Bang! Thump.
It is a story I am very familiar with.
Jonathan responded astutely that it is a story that is familiar not just from Germany, but it seems to be repeated somewhere every few years.
Agreed that Hitler’s closing hours were simply a supremely grotesque version of similar scenes which play out all the time. The increasingly detached and deranged leaders, trying to pretend the inevitable is avoidable, the “yes men” who’d lived parasitically off the regime still toadying, the scurrying around, the maneuvering and backstabbing going on even as the noose tightens, the support staff taking smoking breaks and doing the typing barely grasping that the whole thing is about to go down the toilet. I bet Enron at the end was pretty similar.
Jonathan balked at the comparison to Enron, but suggested Michael Jackson as analogous, which is true (Hitler = tragedy, Michael Jackson = farce). I stuck to my guns:
Hitler-in-the-bunker scenarios happen to businesses, too. So Enron for sure. I’ve read about it. Delusional b*stards. And the megalomania of some of the corporate chieftains in these places rise to near-Hitlerian proportions. They are just not in a position to do nearly as much damage. And, yeah, Michael Jackson, too. And Nixon. And the scene amongst the stupid commies when Yeltsin was taking over, ditto, I’m sure. It is a constant challenge to any leader not to end up surrounded by sycophants, to demand and get the truth from his subordinates. There is a great line in the Count de Marenches book which I wrote about recently. He talks about visiting the Shah of Iran, and being aware that the whole regime was about to slide off the edge any day. He complained to some senior Iranian that the Shah was way too detached, that he did not appear to understand what was going on. The Iranian guy told him, “The father, the old Shah, you didn’t dare lie to him. The son, you don’t dare tell him the truth.” We know which one died in his own bed.
We are fortunate we have Constitutional government here in the good old USA. The Germans had no monopoly on malice, megalomania, stupidity, moral cowardice. Our leaders are constrained, in most ways, most of the time, so the kind of people who would want be like Hitler don’t go into politics, and if they do, they never get the chance to turn into Hitler because we have no provision for a “fuehrer” in our Constitution. And Hitlerian managers have a way of being taken out by ambitious subordinates, or their competitors, or shareholders or, in the last resort, by the Department of Justice. Nonetheless, the seductions and corruption of power are perennial threats in all walks of life.
The most troubling thing about Hitler is not that he was superhumanly diabolical, and hence totally freakish and “nothing like us”. Rather, he was quite possibly the most extreme case of a bunch of bad things that happens all too often — a charismatic bullshit artist with bad ideas and no morals, a sociopath who tells people what they want to hear so he can use them, a seducer who gets them to buy into his evil plans and be complicit in them and who enables them to live out their own worst vices, a huckster who tells people all their problems are someone else’s fault –a perenially popular brand of snake oil, a thug who succeeds initially because he breaks all the rules and people at first can’t believe he is actually serious about what he is doing. Hitler was all of this rolled into one. Bad guys of these sorts often do well for a while, or seem to, but nearly always end up badly.
Ganz’s depiction of Hitler is brilliant because he allows us to see that Hitler was evil, but also human, not a cartoon of evil or a symbol of evil, just a very, very bad man.