"Der Untergang" ("The Downfall") portrays life inside (and to an extent outside) the "Führerbunker" in Berlin during the last few weeks prior to Hitler's suicide in April, 1945. The screenplay was written by Bernd Eichinger, who has had previous experience with the adaptation of historical material for cinema, and done a commendable job in the process. I am, of course, referring to his screen version of Umberto Ecco's historical novel "The Name of the Rose (1986). Some of Eichinger's other credits include "Body of Evidence" (1993, which he co-produced) and "The NeverEnding Story" (1984, as producer).
Few movies have stirred up as much controversy even before their release, as has "Der Untergang." So what was all the fuss about, and was it warranted? After all, how many films have been made about Hitler already, including several about Hitler in his Berlin bunker. There is nothing especially controversial about the subject matter per se. What is more, Hirschbiegel and Eichinger appear to have done their homework, basing the film extensively on German historian Joachim Fest's acclaimed book of the same name (2003). Events are portrayed largely through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler's private secretary from 1943when the film opens with a flashback sequence to her job interview and appointmentto his death. Her memoirs, and interviews conducted before her death, constitute a further source for the film. The Führer himself is played magisterially by Bruno Ganz, who clearly spent countless hours studying Hitler's public speeches, as well as rare footage of the private man, not to mention recordings of his voice. For a historian like myself, who has viewed and listened to much of the material myself, it is uncanny how right Ganz gets it. Inflection, tonality, accentthey are all there. As are gestures and body language. This film has to be seen in the original, even if you don't understand German.
So if there is little in the way of subject matter, preparation, historical consulting, and prime acting to fault, why then the controversy? The approach and interpretation were at the root of the hullabaloo. Interviewed while the film was in the making, Eichinger explained that he would portray Hitler "as a man, as a human" ("wie ein Mensch.") This was revolutionary in cinema, where renditions of the Nazi leader havepre-Eichingerstill not gone far beyond the "evil-dictator" approach. You might reasonably query what is wrong with the "evil dictator" approach, given the accepted fact that he was, indeed, evil. From a historian's perspective, everything is wrong with that approach, and Eichinger had the courage to transcend it for the broad public.
The first two decades of post-World War II historians pretty much demonized Hitler, as did all movies before "Der Untergang." This was understandable, at the time. Wounds were still fresh, denazification was under way, Germans were seeking a new democratic identity aligned with the West, and the issue of "collective guilt" was touchy. Solid, balanced biographies of Hitler had not yet been written, and historical understanding of how it was possible that a highly cultured people such as the Germans could have been led astray was only just beginning to take shape. But with the 1964 revision of Lord Alan Bullock's "A Study in Tyranny" (1st ed. 1952) and Joachim Fest's "Hitler: Eine Biographie" (1973) professional historians started putting demonetization to rest and instead began to explain. And this meant accepting the perhaps distasteful tenet that Hitler was, after all, a man, and not some kind of deranged satanic figure from hell. Sir Ian Kershaw, Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield, has taken things even further, in his highly accessible two-volume (2000 page!) magnum opus which has now become the standard biography (published 1998-2000). For Kershaw has not only reconciled the internationalist (or "Hitler-centric") approach, which focuses on Hitler as linchpin and leader of the Third Reich, without whom World War II and the Holocaust are unthinkable; with the structuralist approach, which links Hitler and his "enabling" to social, political and cultural structures in Weimar Germany. Kershaw has also gone a long way towards meeting the desideratum of German historian Martin Broszat, uttered as far back as the 1970s, for the "historicization" of Third Reich history, meaning its firm embedding in overall German, European, and indeed World History, rather than its artificial isolation as an "aberration" or a "German special path" ("deutscher Sonderweg.") This, then, is the proper historiographical context of "Der Untergang." In effect, the film almost belatedly follows trends in scholarship that have been developing for some time now. Of course, the general public is hardly aware of such developments. So in a sense, the film is something of a vulgarization, a kind of dramatization informed by the best scholarship. The film does not explain, for it is, after all, not a documentary with the voice-over of a historical consultant cum narrator. That is not its purpose. What it does, however, is provide an excellent sense of Hitler in his declining days, increasingly delusional if perhaps not outright insane, but still ablealmost to the bitter endto maintain a hold on his closest followers. Not to mention the unreality of life in the sheltered bunker, while outside the Russians are advancing through Berlin suburbs, held back only by a pathetic hodge-podge of Hitler youth and tired old men drafted into service in the Volkswehr. From all accounts I have read, from the pens of scholars English, American and German, I can say with a high degree of certitude that this film provides a reasonably authentic recreation of what it must have been like. Or in the words of Leopold von Ranke, "wie es eigentlich gewesen." What higher acclaim can a historian provide?
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