Downfall is a haunting and chilling movie. I left the theatre with an impression that I rarely have after viewing a two and a half hour movie. Starring Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire, 1989) as Adolph Hitler, this powerful movie offers an insider’s view of the last ten days of the life of the infamous Hitler, and his Third Reich, between the days of April 20 and 30, 1945. It also makes Downfall one of the very best World War II movies ever made.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s academy awards Downfall opens in 1942 in East Prussia, outside "The Wolf’s Lair," Hitler’s planning center for the war. In the opening scenes a twenty-two year old Munich woman, Traudl Hump, is ushered into Hitler’s office for an interview to become his personal secretary. Traudl is noticeably treated with kindness and human warmth by Hitler (one reviewer says Hitler appears here as a "fatherly and depressed sort of man"), demonstrating that he was not an entirely sub-human monster. But this is not the last time that we see good qualities in Hitler in this film. He later treats children, and his beloved German shepherd Blondi, with great warmth as well, even while his mad plan to conquer the Allies is collapsing around him. And those who served him to the end seem to have done so with a mixture of genuine repect and fear. Traudl, a lapsed Catholic, as was Hitler himself, seems almost oblivious to what she is getting herself into when she begins her secretarial work in 1942. By the end of the movie she seems a bit more reflective. (At the end of the film there is a cameo appearance of the real Traudl, filmed just prior to her death in 2002. She still seems unable to understand how she shared in the moral failures of the Reich!)
From this beginning the viewer is taken inside the Berlin bunker where Hitler and his closest comrades are seeking to save the war effort. These scenes begin with a celebration of Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday on April 20. The story is mostly told from Traudl’s perspective. (Frau Traudl Hump Junge married Hitler’s valet in the years between 1942 and 1945 and by April of 1945 was widowed.) Junge lived for eighty-one years and was interviewed countless times, in her old age, by journalists and historians seeking her first hand accounts of Hitler and his private actions. (She often referred to him as having a pleasant and paternal side and to his being "considerate" in private.) To many, fed the stories of a monster who can only be understood as sub-human, the story Downfall tells has brought considerable criticism for this film in some quarters precisely because it portrays Hitler as so very human.
It is precisely this point that moved me so powerfully. Evil men are not only and always evil. Depravity is not so pervasive, even in one of the most wicked men who ever lived, that there is no evidence of the Creator to be seen at all. If Hitler were something other than a human, who retained in his person the mark of the Creator, then we could reduce all evil to something other than deliberate human choice, and thus human responsibility for real evil would vanish. Neither natural selection, nor genetics, can be blamed for Hitler’s evil. He made real choices, just like every single one of us, and he became what he was precisely because he was tempted and "dragged away by his own evil desire" (James 1:14). The Apostle further says that, "After desire has conceived it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death" (James 1;15). So long as we believe that men like Adolph Hitler are exceptional, or less-then-human monsters, we will fail to see the vast potential for evil that resides in all of us, if left without grace to our own desires and passions.
What is even more gripping here, than the portrayal of Hitler, is the story of the sarcastic and loquacious propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and his amazing wife, Magda. Magda is the most chilling character I think I have seen on film in years. (She cold-bloodedly, and with carefully calculated intention, kills all five of her own beautiful Aryan children so they will not have to live a single day of their lives without National Socialism.) I asked myself over and over: "What makes a person give themselves so devotedly to a man like Hitler that they could kill their own children with such clear intention?" From the little boys who died fighting the Russians in the streets for Hitler’s dream, to the devoted household servants, those close to Hitler often adored him and gladly gave themselves to his every wish. Before Hitler took his own life Magda actually fell at his feet pleading for him to live, weeping and worshiping Hitler as if he were her/the messiah. The xenophobia, racism and unadulterated hatred aside, Hitler had a true following, and a large one at that. It is still true, men filled with themselves and their wretched tyrannical dreams can find followers who adore them and follow them into certain death. Hitler was not the first such man and sadly will not be the last. In this case, his particular evil led to the death of over fifty million people.
In the midst of this terrible story one or two characters actually stand out for their common sense and decency. The madness that surrounded the end of the Reich made many people choose to end thier lives by suicide but a few, filled with deep perplexity, sought hope and healing through serving others. All of this reminds me that it is simply too easy to judge everyone else in this story in the harshest way. Don’t get me wrong. I find nothing attractive about Adolph Hitler at all, absolutely nothing. But I am reminded that God commands me to: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:12-13).