As Human: Der Untergang
Copyright © by Dylan Garcia-Wahl, 12/20/06
Many great actors (some even knighted) have played Hitler on film. All have failed in one sense or another. Sir Alec Guinness played him in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) and Sir Anthony Hopkins donned the armband for The Bunker (1981), Welsh accent and all (he actually did a better job playing Mussolini years later). Both these first rate actors couldn’t fully capture the part so what chance did the likes of Mike Gwilym have when he turned in a robotic caricature in 1990’s The Plot To Kill Hitler – none.
The definitive problem with portraying Adolf Hitler is the irresistible need to overplay him. When we think of Hitler we tend to think of the monster so it’s only natural to represent him as either incessantly brooding or boiling over in volcanic rants. Were this truly Hitler at any point of his life, he could have never accomplished what he did; both the good and the evil. At some point the film industry (and history itself) had to come to the realization that Hitler was human and not merely Satan incarnate. But even when the aforementioned Guinness and Hopkins attempted a human touch to the Führer, it comes across as phony and therein their further failure; but this also comes down to failures in script and filmmaker, as much as the tendency to play him over the top.
It took Germany and actor Bruno Ganz to get the depiction just right in Der Untergang (2004). We’ve seen actors play Hitler time and again and director Oliver Hirschbiegel manipulates this and strikes a stroke of brilliance when he makes us anticipate seeing this Hitler. In one of the earliest moments of the movie, a group of young women are led down into the bunker to interview for the position as Hitler’s secretary. They are given their instructions in protocol and are asked to wait for the Führer to finish feeding his dog. When the waiting is over and the door is opened for Hitler to enter there is a pause. The women crane their necks in an anxious attempt to see him through the open door. Both times I’ve seen this movie I’ve found myself somewhat straining, in ridiculous futility, to get a glimpse earlier than permitted. The anticipation is high on the part of both characters on the screen and audience to see what this man will be. Suddenly we are as much in the film as those secretarial candidates. That pause after the opening of the door is perfect filmmaking.
When Bruno Ganz does enter the room he is not parody, satire, ridiculous, or frothing; he is – human. We begin (and believably, at that) with a kind and patient man. Here we begin the story of Traudl Junge (Hitler’s secretary) but this movie is not about Fraulein Junge nor is it about the dozen other characters who cover subplots. Really it’s not a story about Hitler. It is the story of the fall of Berlin to the Russians from the German side. The various Nazi officers, Traudl Junge, her friends, a young boy and his father, the resistance in the street, Hitler, Eva Braun, and oncoming Russian soldiers are all parts of the puzzle to pull this movie together in a wider span of those final days.
Within that depiction of those days in 1945, Berlin is another grand feature to this film. It shows us correctly how the suicide of Hitler and his wife was not the end of the Third Reich. So many films make it seem that the suicide ended it. This is untrue. The Third Reich went on beyond Hitler. Following the death of Hitler his place was taken ineffectively. There were still Nazis who fought on. There were still Nazis that went on living, Nazis that killed, Nazis that died, Nazis that had to escape. The credits do not roll when the bodies of Hitler and Braun are burned. The movie continues, as did the lives of these people and the dying movement they were involved in.
But, with all this said, Hitler is still the focus of the film as, in real life, he was the focus of all these people’s lives. In his final days, we see him as a complete man. In one moment he is drooling over a model of the “new Rome” he wishes to make of Berlin and the next he is playing with his dog. He is seen thoroughly enjoying the company of the Goebbels children in relaxed moments and then he is worried about the realization of his goal to exterminate the Jewish race. He proudly pinches the cheek of a German boy soon before handing out a paranoid laundry list of executions. He goes from fanatic ranting to sincere melancholy. He is stubborn and disorganized and he is the well tuned leader of a country. We see both the loving, caring man and the God awful monster. No matter what human window we peer through, both emotional and psychological, Ganz plays them all with great believability while capturing every underlying essence. Even in moments when he doesn’t need to speak or take action, Ganz proves he can illuminate the scene. At the wedding of Hitler and Eva Braun, Ganz can practically make the audience curl into fetal position without making a sound when the officiator is required, by Hitler’s own law, to ask the Führer whether or not he is of Jewish blood.
The cast surrounding Bruno Ganz is also flawless. Alexandra Maria Lara showcases Traudl Junge’s naiveté perfectly (an interview with the real Traudl Junge bookends the film). Ulrich Matthes adds a brilliant layer to Goebbels’ level of evil and madness. The swinging pendulum of Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) from good mother to ceaseless, unthinking devotee to Hitler is sensational. When the time comes for Frau Goebbels to murder her children (of course in order to protect them), Harfouch’s acting makes the scene all the more tender and brutally horrible. After Harfouch and Ganz, the most difficult role fell to Juliane Köhler (portraying Eva Braun). Kohler is nothing short of sensational. Again, the believability factor needed to be applied and it is fully there. It falls to Braun to keep the moral high despite the growing realization that the dream is coming to an end. She trusts Hitler without second thought all the while in confusion over who he has become. Still she is eager to explain that there is Hitler the man (kind and generous) and there is Hitler the leader of the Third Reich (who says things that inspire nightmares).
In one of Kohler’s more enjoyable moments, another gift within this film is presented. All too often in film the bunker itself is shown to be cold, dank, and grey. This bunker has that, too, but it also shows that the bunker had well decorated offices and, in this one particular scene, a large dining hall replete with luxurious furnishings and Roman marble columns. In this room, Eva hosts parties that epitomize that 1930’s and 40’s Berlin excess of lore. Kohler even dances on the table like a true flapper. It is the party that seems endless until a bombing raid fills the hall with dust.
It is for movies like this, where every element comes together with remarkable precision, that the Oscar was made. Why Der Untergang had to be relegated to a mere nomination for Best Foreign Film nod is beyond me. Almost as curious is how it lost to Mar Adentro (Spain). This film deserved to be in the Best Film category with the supporting cast filling up their nominated slots. Would it be so awful to have Bruno Ganz (a Swiss), deservingly so, garner a nomination for Best Actor?
Bruno Ganz succeeded in one further thing that I have not mentioned. In the film when it is revealed to Ganz (as Hitler), time and time again, that he has been betrayed by those under his command - orders blatantly not carried out, treason committed, the actual poor status of regiments kept secret, etc. - we see the real human in Hitler. Of course he froths at the mouth, screams psychotically, and orders those who have betrayed him to be shot immediately, but he does so much more. Hitler falls back into despondency. The gloom and the sorrow are as real and earnest as an actor can make it. It is here that the truest element of the human Hitler is portrayed. I can say this because it is here that we are made to feel sorry for Adolf Hitler. This sympathy goes against every fiber of our being. We know the evil that this man was and the evil he invoked. We do not let down our guard enough to forgive him but he is human and we can always find some measure of sympathy for the human state. And, when all is said and done, we need to see the human in order to be all the more appalled by the monster. Look at, on a smaller scale, Ralph Fiennes in Red Dragon (2002) where he plays a serial killer insultingly referred to as the Tooth Fairy. We needed to be shown the caring and touching side of Fiennes’ character to be all the more sickened by his murders. We may not fully understand the process by which one extreme slides to the other but the human commonality we all share permits us to grasp onto something and understand and sympathize with more than we would otherwise.
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