Saturday, October 01, 2005

Downfall (movie review)

What happens when an all-powerful man must “think the unthinkable, bear the unbearable” as Hirohito famously told the Japanese at the end of World War II? Adolph Hilter’s entire image was built on invincibility, strength, complete lack of tolerance for weakness; what happened when he faced defeat?

Downfall is a movie based on the recollections of Hitler’s personal secretary, a young woman who was at his side during the war and right to the end in his Berlin bunker. She remembers him as an inscrutable, a man who could be privately very gentle, forgiving, and kind, but in public reverts to "The Führer", an unchallengeable, unsympathetic, unforgiving tyrant intolerant of failure. When his generals lose and must face their inevitable self-destruction, he calls them traitors, humiliating them in front of the survivors, yet when she through nervousness makes a typing mistake he calmly and gently encourages her to start over.

The others in his coterie face the inevitable in different ways. Many of the adjutants spend their final days in drunken stupor, laughing and telling jokes among themselves (“Berlin has been turned into warehouses. Everyone is running around saying ‘where’s my house?”). Frau Goebbels, loyal wife of the Nazi propagandist, gently kills her children in their sleep because “I can’t let them grow up in a world without National Socialism”. Eva Braun has a happy, joyful disposition throughout, insisting on good food and drink, forcing reluctant soldiers to dance with her even as the bombs fall.

Fifty years later we automatically think failure when we remember Hitler, but for the people who surrounded him in those final days—people who had grown up assuming they were part of something that would last a thousand years—there was some terrible soul-searching and a real lesson in humility. I can't help thinking that some of the same lessons must have been faced by Saddam's loyalists in their final days too.

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