Blind Spots, Indeed

Hitler, what a bastard . . . who knew?

In the riveting 2002 documentaryBlind Spot: Hitler's Secretary,octogenarian Traudl Junge—who took purple-prosed dictation from the Führer for two and a half years and typed his last testament in the Berlin bunker—spilled her guts about what it was like to work for "that lovely old gentleman" in his final days, and examined her own myopia about the catastrophe unfolding outside the hermetically sealed world she had shared with her boss. Her ambivalent yet heartfelt mea culpa, plainly the outcome of an exhausting inner struggle over 60 years of self-imposed silence, made enthralling, if excruciating viewing. It also posed an implicit challenge to the German people to re-examine their own passivity in the face of the Third Reich.

The German docudrama Downfall,which just lost the foreign-language Oscar to Spain's TheSeaInside,is based in part on Junge's account and uses her as an awkward framing device; it is clearly designed to bring her cerebral portrait of Hitler's last days to a broader audience (480,000 Germans flocked to Downfallon its opening weekend). But unlike the documentary, it challenges nothing, which may be why it leaped to number one at the box office and got two thumbs up from Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Still, the movie generated much heated punditry in the press.

European critics were sharply divided, with some detractors raising the usual objections to the movie's perceived efforts to portray Hitler as a human being. (No doubt many Jewish-American leaders will raise the same objections in the coming weeks.) But what makes Hitler so appalling is precisely that he was human, indeed that he expanded the human capacity for evil in both quantity and quality. The crucial question is not how he did what he did, which has been documented all too well in an avalanche of Holocaust-related documentaries, but why. Yet like so many films whose subject touches on the Holocaust (even Roman Polanski, in ThePianist,kept his head respectfully close to the ground of events), Downfallassiduously shuns fresh interpretation, as if an imaginative or non-realist reading were somehow unholy or off-limits.

The price paid for such humility, however understandable given the enormity and touchiness of the subject, is that no new ground gets broken. Downfall'sdirector, Oliver Hirschbiegel, comes out of television, and the movie, which clocks in at 155 slavishly detailed minutes, has the plodding, episodic feel of a miniseries. The action moves methodically between the stifling claustrophobia of the bunker, with its baroque opulence and fragile, delusional orderliness, and the fiery streets of Berlin, a hellhole of suffering civilians who, far from being protected by soldiers, are hounded by roaming SS thugs out to lynch or shoot "collaborators" with the advancing Russian armies. Through the wide eyes of Traudl Junge, portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara as an amiable ingénue, we see an all-too-familiar schizoid Hitler. Tricked out in toothbrush mustache, pasty-face makeup and a greasy black comb-over, his fingers twitching ostentatiously behind his stooped back, Bruno Ganz gives a performance so over the top, and at the same time so much a retread of every well-known image or idea of the Führer, it flirts with parody. Mercifully, the undescended-testicle hypothesis didn't make the cut. Instead, we get the courtly gentleman who's kind to dogs, children and the adoring women who surround him, alternating with the paranoid and deluded hysteric, swinging wildly between grandiose speeches and depressive resignation—here the faddist vegetarian fussing over the gadgetry of suicide, there the devotion to abstract ideals coupled with the callousness toward actual people. None of this is far-fetched, but the composite representation is so absurd the mind flies inescapably to Charlie Chaplin's TheGreatDictator,or to MontyPythonand John Cleese's Mr. Hilter yelling, "Death to the Jews!" while an admiring crowd murmurs, "He's right, you know."

Downfallis marginally more interesting as a study in the fanatical loyalty Hitler inspired in those who served him, and that is largely because of some powerful ensemble acting by those who play his inner circle. Juliane Köhler (Nowhere inAfrica)is terrific as Eva Braun, born to fiddle while Rome burns, her glittering eyes ablaze with feverish gaiety as she eggs on the increasingly unhinged bacchanal in the bunker's great hall, and busies herself bequeathing her pricey wardrobe to others as if making such lists were the crucial business at hand. But compelling as Köhler's performance may be, taken together with Ganz's strutting overkill it seems to suggest that Hitler and his acolytes were no more than a bunch of nutters.

Beyond a couple of anti-Semitic outbursts by Hitler, the Jews don't get much of a look-in, except in a brief last-minute intertitle about the six million who died in the camps. Much is made of his unwillingness to allow the six Goebbels children, who called him Uncle Hitler, to leave the bunker, and of their parents (played with chilling pomp and circumstance by Corinna Harfouch and Ulrich Matthes) methodically poisoning their little Aryans with cyanide—Hirschbiegel is as obsessed as Hitler was with the gadgetry of death—then committing suicide themselves in stony silence. If the movie has a message, it is that at the end Hitler abandoned not only his generals (many of whom, like Himmler and Speer, returned the favor) but the entire German people, excoriating them for cowardice as surrender to the Allied Forces became inevitable.

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