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Pass the Fault

Pass the Fault

By reducing the Third Reich to a limited dementia, a new film absolves the German people of any moral culpability for perpetrating World War II and destroying European Jewry.


Ticket lines for movies are rare in Israel, and rarer still for features that have already been showing for five weeks, and unprecedented for a German production centered on the character of Adolf Hitler. Yet Israelis are still lining up to see Oliver Hirschbiegel's tenebrous docudrama about the Third Reich's closing days, Der Untergang -- The Downfall.

The film, which has won several German awards and has been nominated for an Oscar, triggered nervous debate in Europe over its depiction of Hitler not as a one-dimensional monster but as a flesh-and-blood person, cruel and temperamental at times, but sympathetic and even fatherly at others. In Israel, where it is officially a crime to call a Jew a Nazi, the portrayal of the ultimate Nazi as anything less than demonic is bound to arouse controversy. But Israeli audiences have responded exuberantly, praising actor Bruno Ganz and his nuanced Hitler. Interviewed on Israeli television on Holocaust Memorial Day, Moshe Zimmermann -- a historian who was once sued for comparing settler children to Hitler Youth -- posited that this new, human Hitler served to demythologize Nazism and show how even normal people might be seduced by evil.

But Zimmermann thoroughly missed the point of the movie -- as did most Israelis who saw the film. The Downfall is not about Hitler, human or otherwise, not about Nazism and evil. It is about letting Germany off the hook.

The film opens in 1942, when the 22-year-old Traudl Junge is chosen by Hitler to be his personal secretary. The Führer is here seen as an affable man, crinkly-eyed and patient, even when Traudl fails at typing his dictation.

Fast-forward to late April 1945, and Germany is on the brink of collapse. The Russians have penetrated Berlin, and Hitler, his Nazi cronies, and his staff are locked in an underground bunker. The denizens of this lair are divided between Junker-type generals (such as Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, and Wilhelm Mohnke), who know that the war is lost and want to surrender honorably, and deluded lackeys (such as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Eva Braun, Hitler's paramour), who insist that nonexistent German armies can still turn the tide and ultimately save the Reich. Armaments Minister Albert Speer makes an appearance and sides with the generals, while Heinrich Himmler favors allying with the Americans against Russia. A tremulous Hitler wavers between these positions, alternatively despairing and defiant. And beside him throughout stands Traudl, who, though bereft of hope, refuses to abandon her Führer.

While focusing on this subterranean drama, the film veers off into two subplots, both set in the Bosch-scape of Berlin. The first features Ernst-Günter Schenck, a military doctor who ignores orders to abandon the city and remains to attend to its wounded. The second follows Peter Kranz, who, though only a boy, destroys two enemy tanks, while his father, a one-armed veteran, struggles to drag him from the battle.

The Downfall is concerned with exoneration, not penance, and realizes it through manipulation and deceit.

The wickedness, the senselessness, the horror -- all might have combined into soul-wrenching confession about a nation's descent into barbarity. But The Downfall, based largely on the self-expiating memoirs of Traudl and Speer, is concerned with exoneration, not penance, and realizes it through manipulation and deceit.

Take, for example, Traudl. She is the perfect ingenue: modest, demure, incapable of uttering an unkind or scatological word. Unsullied by ideology, she gapes incredulously every time Hitler makes an anti-Semitic remark. And, though she is played by the irresistible Alexandra Maria Lara, the Traudl character is portrayed as mostly sexless. She elicits not a single lascivious stare, much less a pinch, from any of the bunker's besotted officers. The real Traudl Junge, however, joined the Nazi League of German Girls at age 15 and was later elected to the elite Faith and Beauty society, whose members often mated with party stalwarts.

Other Nazis are similarly rehabilitated by the film. Ernst-Günter Schenck was an SS officer accused of performing experiments on prisoners at Mauthausen. Keitel and Jodl were both executed for war crimes--a fact mentioned just once before the closing credits--and Mohnke was charged with massacring Allied POWs. Speer, who is seen boldly ignoring Hitler's orders to destroy Germany's infrastructure, constructed his buildings with slave laborers. And the Wehrmacht, which is painted in such heroic colors that the audience cannot help but root for it, was complicit in countless atrocities.

What, Gott in Himmel, is going on here? Clearly, The Downfall is distinguishing between bad Germans (a small band of Nazis) and good (everyone else). The bunker's debauchery is contrasted with the suffering of simple Berliners, and Hitler's desire to destroy the German people for failing to win the war is compared with the army's determination to fight even though victory is impossible. The dusky lynch squads who hang Peter's father serve as a counterpoint to the fair-haired children who try to help others escape, and the ghoul-faced Goebbels is the reverse image of Traudl, who remains angelic even as she flees the city wearing an SS helmet.

The Downfall wants to demonstrate how the German people, too, were victimized by Nazism. If guilty at all, it is only of overwrought nationalism, of misplaced loyalty, or of just plain naivete -- anything but evil. Not even the Nazis are truly evil, only sick. They prefer to blow their brains out, or, like Goebbels's sociopathic wife, Magda, to poison their own children rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. And, of all the Nazis, none is crazier -- insane, not satanic -- than Adolf Hitler.

Hitler's humanity, in fact, lasts for five minutes in the film's opening scene. Thereafter, he launches into a maelstrom of tirades, tantrums, and incoherent fits that culminate in his suicide. Since he is not a bad person, per se, but merely a lunatic, it follows that those who adored him were also unbalanced -- temporarily, in the case of many Germans, terminally for the die-hard Nazis. By reducing the Third Reich to a limited dementia, The Downfall absolves the German people of any moral culpability for perpetrating World War II and destroying European Jewry. On the contrary, it casts them as heroic, even martyr-like. The movie closes with Traudl and the orphaned Peter Kranz together, cycling into the sunshine -- the virgin and the golden-haired child, the progenitors of an immaculate Germany.

Most of the Israelis who lined up for The Downfall were too focused on its multifaceted Führer to see this whitewashing. Others, yearning to be part of the New Europe, welcomed it. But the film is not meant for Israelis, nor even for Americans. Rather, its ideal viewers are twentysomething Germans who have made it the most popular film in their country's history. And understandably so, for they emerge from the theater convinced that their grandparents were valorous, victimized, and naive, and that Germany can unreservedly take its place in a post-nationalist, post-psychotic Europe. They can enjoy watching the next generation of Germans play hide-and-seek around the abstract black cubes of Berlin's new Holocaust memorial, situated near the site of Hitler's bunker.

Though some movies open with a disclaimer, The Downfall ends with one. Statistics appear on the screen -- "Fifty million people were killed in World War II, and six million Jews died in German concentration camps" -- couched in soothingly passive verbs. Then, the real Traudl Junge, 80 years old but still handsome, asserts that she never once suspected the evil deeds committed by her mad ex-boss.

But compare this ending with that of another movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, released in 1961. After deciding that four German judges on trial for war crimes were guilty merely by having participated in the Nazi system, American justice Dan Waywood (played by a wizened Spencer Tracy) declares, "If the defendants had been degraded perverts, if all the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events [the Holocaust] would have no more moral content than an earthquake."

Perhaps Der Untergang should change its name to Der Erdbeben, The Earthquake.

This article originally appeared in The New Republic.

July 2, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 15

(15) Wendy Beth, March 27, 2014 9:39 PM

Knowledge to keep one from retching.

In the end, the evil-doers will receive their just desserts. None of the lies, the whitewashing, the self-awarded exculpation promoted in movies like Der Untergang will hold water when the lot of them - their criminal predecessors and their entire nations - face the ultimate Judge. There is Justice in the end. That knowledge can keep one from getting sick from the garbage spewed by those like the makers of Der Untergang. I’d add Moshe Zimmerman to the bunch.

(14) Beverly Kurtin, February 25, 2014 8:24 PM

Have not seen it

I've not seen the film, thus I cannot intelligently or honestly comment on its content. That said, there existed, during WWII over 20,000 concentration camps that were run by the Nazis. For any German or Pole to say, "We didn't know" is a lie of the first order.
Although I do not blame the current generation of Germans for what their parents or grandparents did or did not do, I still blame the Polish people for their continuing conscious and deliberate Jew hate.
Yes, there were many righteous Gentiles who saved some of our people, but the Poles were especially heinous in making certain that their Jews were discovered even when they had found what they thought was a safe haven.
People who have returned to Poland to see where their parents or grandparents had lived are met with hostility and hate.
Hashem has called us the "apple of his eye." I do not question why he permitted the atrocities he permitted during the war, but I have to laugh at what happened to some countries who participated or encouraged the Holocaust.
Great Britain used to boast that the sun never set on the Empire's flag. Now they're just a tiny island off the coast of France.
Poland is still hovering between the 19th and 20th centuries. They're still using horses and buggies in the rural areas, although the wheels are pneumatic tires.
Vengeance is mine said Hashem. Nicely done.

(13) Anonymous, April 14, 2011 5:48 PM

okay i am watching this film for my film philosophy class. we are breaking down the film to answer: who is responsible and what would you do.. so on. i must agree with John and ask what film are you watching?! this film has a split. on the one hand hitler is their fuhrer and on the other as the war comes to an end the film shows the struggle of loyalty. this film in no way shows the germans as victims. one line may depict the germans as victims when hitler says he shall not evacuate his people that he does not care 3 million germans shall die yada yada yada.. however this film shows they are all guilty. being young is not an excuse [elder traudl's words]. at the end most generals/commanders disregard the orders of hitler. they execute their own deeds. many flee or disobey orders or attempt to convince hitler to either peacefully surrender or for he himself to flee. they want to proceed to follow him for the sole reason that he is their fuhrer but they know his actions are absurd. at the end he is fighting for the sake to not go down without a fight. he knows he has lost. he is sacrificing the lives of his soldiers and people because he does not wish to appear weak. his people are no longer of concern to him at the end. solely his pride. the film shows his leadership falling to pieces. it shows his leading officers split between loyalty and sanity. yes the german people at the end of the film are victims but they are just as much to blame. all who participated. fired a gun. stood by and watched and said nothing. those are all to blame. reevaluate your review. i think your lost in your thoughts.

(12) donald rose, November 28, 2010 10:31 PM

wearabouts of peter kranz

just wondering what ever happened to peter kranz after the war

(11) Anonymous, July 20, 2009 9:00 PM

I know this isn't going to be a very popular statement. But to suggest that the movie "The Downfall" is somehow attempting to absolve the German people of guilt is short sighted and misses the point of it. The focus of the movie was the last twelve days of Hitler's regime. Had the focus been the rise of the Third Riech through the war and to the end of the final fall of the nazis and had it not mentioned the Holocaust, I think I could see your point. As someone born well after the end of World War II, the movie revealed the madness that enveloped Hitler and all of those close to them...To the point that military strategist stood and said nothing as he moved divisions and made plans for sweeping all encompessing counter attacks that did not even have a remote chance of succeeding. They all knew he was mad. But because "dice was cast" they made no substantial move to oppose him. Just because the film didn't focus on the Holocaust doesn't mean that those who made the film or German people at large are trying to absolve themselves from it or excuse it.

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