Film #47 in the World War II Marathon!
Screenplay By: Bernd Eichinger
Directed By: Oliver Hirschbiegel
For those who aren’t aware, I am a history buff and like a great number of people I tend to focus on World War II. The topic has endlessly fascinated me for years, from the formative years of the conflict to the moment Japan surrendered and the aftermath. It is such an all encompassing subject, and it has both modern and classical sensibilities. But, undeniably the one historical figure that is the most interesting would be that of Adolf Hitler. The reasons why are obvious and despite the fact that there are countless documentaries and books about the man I never tire of reading more about the historical figure of Adolf Hitler. Because of this historical fascination Der Untergang obviously appealed to me greatly, and in the tradition of the truly masterful World War II films it managed to keep that appeal from start to finish.
I have read quite a bit of criticism towards Der Untergang, most of it stems from the fact that the filmmakers had the gall to make the Nazis human. I don’t understand this line of thinking, and I believe Roger Ebert expressed the right sentiment when reviewing Der Untergang for At The Movies, if Hitler and the Nazis aren’t human then doesn’t that excuse all their actions? The answer to that is a resounding yes and that is why Hitler and the Nazis need to be human, because even though some people may not want to admit it, they were human, very human in fact. The greatest evil comes from humanity and therefore it is no surprise that a human being would be considered the most evil sentient in all of existence. What Bruno Ganz and director Oliver Hirschbiegel make sure to relate to the audience is that while Hitler was undoubtedly an evil person who committed untold atrocities, he was also a man capable of a loving smile or a cheerful pat on the back. This doesn’t condone his actions at all, but what it does is make Hitler a man and not a monster, he isn’t absolved from his crimes but rather he is all the more guilty of them because he possessed the humanity necessary to not commit his atrocities.
The cast of Der Untergang is great across the board, but it’s no shock that the one performance that bares special recognition is Ganz as Hitler. He doesn’t play him maniacally or sympathetically, he plays him as a man full of the type of charisma that could lead an entire nation to ruin. Ganz is wonderful as Hitler loses more and more of his sanity until at the end he doesn’t have control over the world around him. Paranoia sets in, he becomes more delusional by the second and the entire world is out to get him. Ganz brings the feebleness of Hitler in these moments to the forefront, but he does something that was unexpected, but necessary. Ganz never lets Hitler become a shell of the charismatic leader that once enraptured all of Germany. Even in his worst moments of delusion Hitler can still look at his Generals and commandeer their faith and loyalty. People often wonder how one man gained so much power and how a group of people followed him so rabidly, but all you need to do is watch Ganz as Hitler for longer than thirty seconds and all your questions are answered.
Der Untergang gives a glimpse, in small snippets, of the downfall of Germany, not just Hitler and his Generals. This is important, because too often war movies focus solely on the people in power or the little people exclusively. Der Untergang presents a dual dynamic, we see the little people of Germany fall at the same time that their leaders do. The scenes outside of the bunker also give us a feeling for the differences between what was actually happening and what Hitler’s delusional mind believed was happening. You see how desperate the situation was, but at the same time you hear Hitler’s proclamations and you see soldiers that should give up rally behind their leader. Even in the scenes that don’t involve him Hitler’s charisma resonates.
There is a horror element to Der Untergang as well. The cramped bunker and the inevitability of death permeate the picture. In a chilling scene Magda Goebbels drugs her children and then forcibly kills them with cyanide. You know their fate, but when it comes we watch in stunned horror as their mother carries out their death sentence and then retires for a soothing game of solitaire. The final harried retreat of the rest of Hitler’s bunker mates takes on a horrific visual quality, because they are surrounded by nothing but death and their mere presence seems to cause people to die. What may be most horrific of all to some, is that even with their charismatic leader dead the Wehrmacht continues on, even against insurmountable odds they fight because Hitler wanted them to fight. And when the time comes that they can fight no more some kill themselves out of loyalty to their leader. Long after his death the charisma of Hitler still haunts the Germans.
There are plenty of fine films on World War II, but Der Untergang is the finest film on the most important figure of World War II. It is an important piece of historical fiction, but it is also a tremendous drama. Some people may not want to see Hitler on their screen for two plus hours, but for World War II buffs or anyone who is willing to look past the monster myth and see the scariness of humanity then Der Untergang is for you. The downfall of a society at the hands of a dangerously charismatic individual awaits all who bare witness to Der Untergang.