In a makeshift laboratory in the depths of a bunker, a scientist carefully mixes powders and liquids in a large beaker. An immaculately dressed woman nearing middle-age sits tensely by his side. She anxiously inquires, "How long will the effect be?" The scientist answers, "About four hours."
The woman and the scientist take the mixture into another room in the bunker where six children (ranging in age from about four to thirteen) are sitting and reading a bedtime story together. They look up to greet their mother and the man whom she introduces as a doctor coming to bring them some medicine to guard against the dampness of the underground shelter. "But Mutti, it is not damp in here," the youngest little girl interjects. "Quiet now," the mother replies, "Who will take a sip of the medicine first?" The youngest volunteers. The glass is passed from child to child, each one dutifully taking his or her share, until it reaches the eldest girl, Helga. Helga has been watching with growing horror, and refuses to take the medicine. What does she fear? Her mother insists and holds her daughter's head still while the man forces the concoction down her throat. Helga breaks free and collapses sobbing onto her bed. The mother and the scientist leave the room.
What Helga can only guess at the viewer already knows. We have already watched the mother, Magda Goebbels, agonizing over the thought killing her children. She resolves to end their lives, because she does not want them to grow up in a world without National Socialism, without the German Reich, and, mostly, without der Führer. She and her husband, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, have decided to stay with Adolph Hitler during his last few days as Berlin falls to the Russians and Hitler himself falls to the madness and delusions of his own megalomania. They will die with the man to whom they have pledged their devotion and service, and they will take their children with them. Various Nazi officials, including Hitler, try to convince her to spare the children, but she sees no future worth living as the Third Reich falls. At this point, the viewer hopes, knowing that the effect of the "medicine" will only last four hours, that Magda Goebbels has had a change of heart and will only drug her children into a deep sleep while the last vestiges of Hitler's reign crumble.
Jason and I finished watching the excellent German-language movie Downfall last night. It was an experience that will not soon leave me. I went to bed thinking about what I'd seen, and I woke up this morning with scenes from the movie still seared into my consciousness. Never before had I seen a portrayal of that personification of evil, Adolph Hitler, that made him anything more profound than a cartoonish example of madness. Never before had I seen on film a representation of the psychological hold Hitler had on so many of the German people, especially his closest advisors and companions. Nazis are so often presented in American (and other countries') films as nameless, faceless arms of automation -- performing their senseless horror with mechanical precision and without passion. How many "Heil Hitlers" and boot-clickings can they fit on screen before getting back to the real characters in the World WAR II drama at hand? This movie brought to vivid, heart-wrenching life some of the key players in the last hours of Adolph Hitler, and, while it was not attempting the impossible feat of making Hitler and his close associates sympathetic, it succeeded brilliantly in making them human -- fatally flawed, intensely disturbed, incurably insane humans.
The movie is told through the eyes of Hitler's personal secretary, Traudl Junge, a young Bavarian woman who goes to work for Hitler in 1942. The action quickly fast forwards to April 1945 and the unstoppable Russian forces closing in on Berlin. Even as Hitler tries every strategy to rally the German forces to overcome the Russian advance, he prepares his suicide. Key characters in his regime pass in and out of the bunker throughout the movie. One of the areas in which the movie excels is the constant tension created by observing the reactions of those closest to Hitler, as the world for which they have fought disintegrates about them. Who will stay to the end? Who will abandon Berlin? Who will be loyal? Who will betray? Who will fight for the Reich in the bombed-out streets? Who will accept the inevitability of surrender to the Russians? The script is so well crafted, that Nazi officials from sixty years ago become known to the viewer in distinguishable vignettes. Although it is a foreign language film (and I speak some German, but not enough to watch without subtitles) and the actors are all unknown to U.S. audiences (and wearing, essentially, the same uniform), I had no trouble following the actions and motives of the different characters as they chose their fates.
The actor who played Hitler, Bruno Ganz, was amazing. He brought to the role such an ability to round out the personality of a man that everybody knows of, but whose own mistress (later wife) Eva Braun, admitted that nobody knows. You could believe him -- that's my highest praise. You could believe that he loved his dog, was kind to his secretary, was complimentary to his subordinates, was absolutely without mercy toward his perceived enemies, was unconcerned about the suffering of German civilians, and was able to sentence over six million Jews to death. His odd mixture of courtly civility, unbalanced irrationalism, and blood-thirsty self-righteousness simply blended into an incredible psychological specimen -- the mind of a genius and a lunatic.
The actress who played Eva Braun, Juliane Köhler, created a needed foil to Ganz's Hitler. You would have to be more than a little off-kilter to fall in love with such a madman, and her portrayal of the most infamous mistress in history was pitch perfect. Her laughter echoed off the bunker walls while she cranked up the Victrola and led a madcap dancing party as bombs shook the foundation of the earth. She smoked, dranked, and ate meat (all things that Hitler abhorred); she had giggling girl-chats with the lady secretaries and expressed a light-hearted point of view so far removed from the darkness of the souls surrounding Hitler; and she loved der Führer with unquestioning devotion. When she begs her (newly-married) husband to spare the life of her brother-in-law who abandoned his post and was to be shot as a traitor, and Hitler caresses her face while explaining that there is no mercy for those who betray him, and she sits back and looks at him with a mixture of resignation and complete reverance and says, "You are the Führer" -- that is a great cinematic moment.
Alexandra Maria Lara plays the secretary, Traudl Junge, who witnessed this culmination (much of the movie was based upon her autobiography). She also did an excellent job. Frau Junge was only twenty-two and non-political when she went to Berlin to work for the most powerful man in Germany -- a man she always described as "the best boss I ever had." In the last days, as the Reich was unravelling and the bunker walls were becoming more and more like a prison than a refuge, we see her growing horror at witnessing Hitler's hate-filled invectives and merciless attitude toward the sufferring German civilians. Ms. Lara plays the role with the right balance of naïve surprise and detached world-weariness. For a short while in the film, she and another secretary gladly accept cyanide tablets from Hitler so that they too can die with the Reich.
Some of the greatest revelations of this film are the scenes portraying the German civilians outside the bunker in war-ravaged Berlin. It is hard to find an American movie about World War II that shows the incredible sufferring of the ordinary men and women who lived in the bombed out cities of Germany, and the Berlin street scenes in Downfall are particularly poignant -- maybe in part because it is such a novelty to reflect on this aspect of the War. One thing that the movie shows very well is that many ordinary civilians had as much to fear from the Nazis as from the invading Russian forces. In one brief but powerful scene, civilians are scurrying across the streets in a bombing lull. All of a sudden -- BOOM! -- a bomb hits the ground and the people instinctively dive flat on their bellies. The smoke clears and the people get up again and continue on their ways, except some mothers who huddle over their bloodied children. That low moan of complete despair escapes one mother's lips as she cradles her dead son and cries, "Hans . . . Hans . . ." In another scene, war-weary civilians are hanged from street lamps by remnant Nazi troops for daring to seek mercy from the Russians.
Hitler's suicide is shown as the methodical act of self-will -- not so much out of desperation, certainly not of depression, but an act of pride. He will not allow himself to go into hiding. He will not allow himself to be captured. He will not even allow the Russians to get a hold of his corpse, so he orders it burned upon his death. Eva Braun, not more than thirty-six hours Frau Hitler, applies one last coat of red lipstick and resolutely joins in death the man she made her god in life. Behind a solid bunker door, they each break a thin, glass capsule filled with cyanide between their teeth, and Hitler puts a bullet through his temple simultaneously. Their bodies are taken out to a ditch outside the bunker, doused with gasoline, and set aflame. As Hitler exits in this manner, the German people are still starving and common soldiers are still dying. The juxtaposition of his suicide to a desperate people suddenly abandoned is a skillful way for the filmmakers to comment subtly that this was no noble act, but one of extreme cowardice.
Frau Junge decides to make her escape. The viewer gets the impression that she has seen enough self-destruction and murder to turn her away from the idealistic decision to die with the Führer. She decides that she would rather take her chances on the streets of Berlin, filled with the advancing Russian forces, than spend one more minute in the poisonous atmosphere of the bunker. It was interesting to learn (from the documentary included on the DVD we rented) that Frau Junge's husband has been one of Hitler's personal servants, but he had volunteered to go fight on the front lines because, as he told his young wife, "The longer I stay here, the less I can call my mind my own. I echo everything the Führer says. I go to sleep thinking about the Führer; I wake up thinking about the Führer. Better to go to the front lines and possibly lose my life than stay here and lose my soul." He soon lost his life in battle. Knowing this, though, I wondered if his young widow remembered his words as the regime crumbled, and decided she would rather not lose her life or her soul. Her escape from Berlin is one of the uplifting moments in this profoundly disturbing and dark film.
And what of the young Goebbelses? What of those six precious children who were left in the bunker? What of those Kinder -- the truly innocent pawns in this game of death?
Back in the bunker, Magda Goebbels enters her childrens' room. They are sleeping a deep, drugged sleep. Resolutely she goes to the first child. Her face is set like a mask -- absolutely no emotion. She pries open her daughter's mouth and places a cyanide capsule between her teeth. Then Frau Goebbels pushes the child's jaw up to crush the capsule and release the poison -- a small spasm and then the small girl's head lolls to the side, lifeless. This act is repeated another five times, until all of the children are dead -- robbed of their young lives by a mother blinded by her fanatical devotion to a cult of death and destruction. Magda Goebbels pulls the blankets up over each of their heads. She leaves the room and closes the door. She sinks to the floor -- not in a faint, but in mental and physical exhaustion. Her husband stands a few yards away and stares at her in mute sympathy. In a minute, she arises and says nothing but sits at a table and calms herself with a game of solitaire.
Soon, Frau and Herr Goebbels go outside the bunker to the courtyard. He shoots her and then himself. They too are burned in the ditch -- the minister of Nazi propaganda becoming the final ironic statement of absolute devotion -- offering not only himself, but his wife and children as sacrifices upon the altar of a demonic political philosophy.
This movie is very difficult to watch, especially the scenes with the children. It is hard to believe that these events happened only sixty years ago. More than anything, I was left feeling so grateful that I worship the Lord of Life and not the government of men. It is so scary to see what happens when people put their faith in governments and not in the Creator -- whether that government is Naziism, Stalinism, or any other system made by sinful man. I would recommend this film with the only reservations being the violence on screen and the emotional drain. It is an important movie and a worthy addition to the cinematic examinations of the horror of World War II.