American Views Abroad

Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Der Untergang - The Downfall

Much has been written about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and its effect on U.S. viewers. Der Untergang (The Downfall), a film produced, written and acted by German speakers has brought a record number of Germans of all generations to the movie theaters. A quick review of comments in the English language media concentrate on what effect this film - which purposely aims to demythologize Hitler, for here he is not only a demon but also a man - will have on viewers. Might it lead masses of them to feel dangerous sympathy for a sick man who loved his dog and even managed to show kindness to his secretary? Jefferson Chase writing in last Sunday's Boston Globe's Idea section ("Ready For His Closeup") discusses the debate raging in Germany about it and takes the position of one German journalist who dismissed the film as "Hitler for the children of CNN and Big Brother." Chase claims it doesn't shed much light on why intimates stuck by his side at the end or why Germany as a whole followed him so eagerly into ultimate doom and destruction.

To a certain extent he is right. Why does Albert Speer in those last horrifying days chose to travel from Hamburg to Berlin to inform Hitler personally that he has not been following his orders? Why this sense of obligation when he could have been killed on the spot? The viewer is left playing guessing games about the ebb and flow of power between individuals. Speer is free to leave, albeit without a handshake; Eva Braun's brother-in-law is killed on orders despite her pleas to save him. Her instant about-face and acquiescence is not something you willingly want to be confronted with. One sits in this film shocked at the lack of any plausible explanation while being confronted with its juxtapositions of life inside the bunker where food and wine seem plentiful, the talk of total victory by armies and planes no longer existent is insane and the rituals of serving Hitler's whims and moods appear unreal are followed by the absolute horror of the Fall of Berlin outside. The scenes portraying the devastation brought upon the civilians of Berlin in those last days should give anyone vaguely arguing for pre-emptive war nightmares.

It isn't the Germans and how they react to this film that gave me such a jolt. It is the juxtapositions of what is happening in Iraq on the news one sees here on German TV daily and what one is not seeing in the U.S., or as one American friend who just returned from Minnesota observed, you have to look very hard to try to find news of the war. It's the myths and tall tales of Weapons of Mass Destruction never found in Iraq; it's the cruel, mindless, unfounded attacks on Kerry's Vietnam War experiences and a strange lack of asking hard questions about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It's the obsession with a bunker mentality that will soon photograph and finger-print every non-U.S. citizen entering the U.S. It's the reluctance to look into the untruths and to concentrate solely on swagger and poses of leadership.

The Washington Post reported yesterday in Poll Shows Bush with Solid Lead: "Majorities say Bush is a strong leader, has taken a clear stand on issues, has an appealing personality and will make the country safer. A plurality gives Bush the edge on who is honest and trustworthy and who `shares your values'." The International Herald Tribune quotes a Pew report today that claims "Bush's gains in support are being driven more by perceptions of Kerry's weakness - especially in leadership and other personal traits - than by improved opinions of Bush."

If there is anything in the film to make viewers cringe at the thought of strong leadership and taking a clear stand on issues it is Hitler's fanaticism on ridding Europe of the Jews and on the question of unconditional surrender. Just how can anyone "stand up" to a "strong leader" in an emotionally laden time? The fog of innuendoes, the total misrepresentation of Iraq's (non) connection to 9/11 and the war on terrorism, Cheney's game of a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorism makes the hurdle for Kerry in the upcoming debates almost out-of- reach.

At the end of the film, Hitler's secretary - the film is based on her book - is forced to leave the bunker. Suddenly she is directly confronted with the devastation all around. When the film is over she, the real secretary and close to the end of her life, comments on those years. She never saw what happened as her responsibility. She always thought of herself as too young and too in awe of him. It took many years and an accidental walk down a street of Munich for her to come across a plague dedicated to Sophia Scholl who paid with her life for resisting Hitler. There for the first time she realizes that she and Scholl were born in the same year. Youth, she then said, is no excuse for not knowing. Neither is being afraid of another terrorist attack.

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