Screens The final curtain

Germans come to terms with their past and the Führer who ducked his own reckoning

Actor Bruno Ganz, best known to American audiences as the wise, wistful angel of Wings of Desire, brings human scale to the 20th-century's most terrifying villain in Der Untergang (Downfall), a German film about the final days leading up to Hitler's suicide.

It is April 1945, and as the Soviet army advances on Berlin, German officers urge Adolf Hitler to flee. But Albert Speer, the Führer's favorite architect, advises him to stay: "You must be on stage when the curtain falls." With a supporting cast of millions, Hitler seized the role of planetary dramaturge, making his life the center of a vast, grotesque melodrama. With Downfall, director Oliver Hirschbiegel brings the curtain down on the man who played the lead in turning Europe into a charnel house. The performance could be called a swan song but for the fact that the protagonist was a vulture.

For almost 40 years, Germans have observed an unofficial taboo against portraying Hitler, lest they seem to be arousing sympathy for the devil. As early as 1940, Charles Chaplin aped Hitler in The Great Dictator, and one of the Three Stooges, Tom Dugan, impersonated him in 1942 in To Be or Not to Be. But for German actors, the stakes have been nothing less than national rehabilitation. Though Downfall aroused controversy when released last year in Germany, it is not likely to inspire Neo-Nazi recruitment. With documentary precision, it reenacts the final 10 days of the megalomaniacal chancellor whose reign of terror caused 50 million deaths.

Though best known as the sweetly melancholic angel in Wings of Desire, Bruno Ganz transforms himself into a thoroughly believable Hitler, a leader who alternates between certainty in ultimate victory and self-pitying despair over treachery by his generals, "international Jewry," and the German people. "No one understands me, not even my closest comrades," he whines, but this film takes the measure of a man who created a culture of death that ends up consuming him. Hitler is surrounded and supported by sycophants, cynics, sybarites, and lunatics. For all the footage of mayhem in the streets outside the bunker, the most chilling moment occurs when Magda Goebbels (Matthes), a true believer to the end, poisons her six children, declaring, "I won't let the children grow up in a world in which there is no National Socialism."

(Der Untergang)

Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel; writ. Bernd Eichinger, from books by Joachim Fest and Traudl Junge; feat. Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Koehler (R)
The film is framed by the voiceover of Traudl Junge (Lara), who served as Hitler's secretary from 1942 until his suicide. In the opening sequence, she and four others are ushered in to audition for a stenographic job with the Führer. Hitler hires 22-year-old Traudl simply because she comes from Munich. Her typing lags behind his fervid dictation, but Hitler is patient, an avuncular employer who inspires loyalty if not devotion. In an interview following the final credits, the real Traudl Junge, who died in 2002, characterizes her role in the Nazi regime as youthful folly. She was motivated entirely by the thrill of working for the most powerful man in the world. She recalls that it was not until many years later that she understood the full horror and realized that she could and should have made an effort to be informed. Through Traudl, Downfall indicts those ordinary Germans so caught up in the delirium of national renewal that they failed to question its price. I encountered Traudls in a marketing class I once spoke to; excited by their term projects, to design a corporate advertising campaign, they were bewildered when asked whether scruples might ever cause them to refuse a corporate assignment.

Schenck, a medical official whose principal concern is alleviating the enormous suffering during the siege of Berlin, represents the decent German. While colleagues exploit their privileges to flee, he stays behind, struggling to save lives under dreadful conditions. It is through Schenk's eyes that the sots and savages who control the bunker seem a ghastly aberration. It is the triumph of that gaze that offers hope for redemption of his nation and the species.


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