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...a sweatshop of moxie

Saturday, May 21, 2005

In Hitler's Bunker

Adolf Hitler's last meal was ravioli.

Startling, when put this way, isn't it? Reminding one of Hannah Arendt's famous phrase of "the banality of evil".

But so it was pictured in the Oscar-nominated film from Germany, Der Untergang (Downfall), of which this post isn't quite a review of, but rather, a few impressions only.

First off, I have to say that I didn't know what to expect from this film, since Germans have a kriegsschuld (war guilt) that often prevents them from portraying the events of the Third Reich in anything but a maudlin or hysterical manner.

(The one exception is the endlessly fascinating 42-hour television series, Heimat, which if you haven't seen, you absolutely MUST)

This film is based on a biography by Germany's most noted Hitler historian (who I have met), Joachim Fest, an elegant, deeply reflective author, but one who also finds it awkward to write about Hitler with objectivity, often resorting to clumsy phrases in his biographies like "the young fool then left Vienna...", or, "which we know this country bumpkin enjoyed".

Now before you start squirming in your seats, wondering about me, it's not objectivity or fairness to a monster that I wished to see.

À priori, we all know the tremendous well of evil this man dipped into, and launched unto the world with his mechanised killing machines.

Heaven forbid any human should ever forget that, least of all Germans or Austrians, who had the infinite bad luck to be his compatriots. And being half-German, I am certainly not absolved from this Damocletian sword of history either, if only in terms of memory.

It's just that if I was going to be treated to yet another round of "Let's caricature ole Adolf to make ourselves feel better", I could think of better ways to spend 2 hours.

There were two things going for this film, apart from the Oscar nomination (normally the Academy finds way to dumb down their choices, but I find they usually get it very right in their foreign film nominations), which reassured me:

  • 1- Bruno Ganz in the lead role

  • 2- The elapse of 60 years, and the deaths of the main witnesses

The first is what Americans term a "no-brainer".

The Swiss-born Bruno Ganz is the Iffland Ring holder, a half-secretive honour given to the greatest living actor of the German language of his day. Ganz inherited it from the inestimably talented Austrian actor, Josef Meinrad, and few contemporaries of stage and screen could challenge his skillful métier.

Secondly, there is a price one pays for objectivity, and that is the death of first-hand witnesses to an event, with their priceless knowledge yes, but also with their heavy conscience.

As this inverse of "The Greatest Generation" dies, I feel that the Volkdeutsch will find it easier to explore a topic so difficult to do so than when it relates to grannies and grandpas still alive.

If I could mention one overriding feeling I got from Der Untergang, it was this feeling of oppressiveness was almost completely absent, and a painful topic explored with almost a cobweb-clearing gusto. It felt clean, healthy.

Ironic, of course, when you remember how unhealthy Hitler was in his last days, as the Soviets pounded the streets of Berlin, (making a permanent movie soundtrack of bombing, and artillery fire), as this morphia-addict, Parkinson's diseased neuropath closeted himself with his staff and mistress, Eva Braun.

The story is actually told through the taped memories of Traudl Junge, who opens the film in a lineup gaggle of secretary candidates, chosen by Hitler personally for the unspoken but obvious reason of her being Bavarian.

Hitler was comfortable with Bavarians, having served in WWI in a Bavarian regiment, launched his political career there with the aborted Beer Hall Putsch, and ultimately choose a Bavarian woman with whom to share his life, and death.

Where Prussians are strict, narrow-minded, and hard-working, Bavarians are happy-go-lucky: bons vivants who make life light and easy, and I daresay, that's what Hitler needed most after a heavy day of blitzkrieging.

And having mentioned Bavarians, here I cannot fail to mention the lack of regional accents I found in this film, with almost the sole and absolutely wonderfully startling exception of Adolf Hitler himself.

Berliners, who you would expect to overpopulate this film, were underrepresented accent-wise. They have a distinctive way of changing the hard "g" sound in German, into a soft "y" sound. E.G., Guten Morgen becomes something like, "Yuten Moyrn".

Bavarians and Austrians themselves have a sing-songy cadence to their German, and neither actress playing Traudl Junge or Eva Braun exhibited that at all. So I got to wondering afterward why that was, since the real-life characters most certainly did.

In fact, I think it was a deliberate attempt to minimise accents around Hitler, since then Bruno Ganz' impersonation could stand out that much more.

This is one of the first shocks of the film.

I had heard that Ganz had worked on his North Austrian accent with a young actor from Hitler's hometown of Branau, but I had NEVER expected the accent I got as a viewer.

Everyone alive today has heard excerpts of Hitler's speech-making voice. It is quite simply demonic.

His voice rises and falls maniacally; his gutteral accent becomes an emory-board of irritation; his mannerisms and eyeball rolls lend it an unintended comedic effect, but one which has made generations of people wonder...

How did Germans fall under this clown's spell?

So it was doubly amazing to hear that his real voice was nothing like his oratical voice: it was soft, low-pitched, not whiney, and yet very very unrefined. It was a peasant's voice, with bad grammar, and even worse diction.

I am used to Austrian regional accents, but even I had to resort to reading the subtitles because his accent was so thick as to be unintelligible in parts.

After researching online, I found out that Bruno Ganz not only used the Braunau actor as his tutor, but also a secret taping done of Hitler in Finland, by a Radio Finland technician who put his life on the line to do so.

Hitler never wanted his speaking voice to be taped, and now we know why. It was distressingly common which wouldn't make the listener think of the hyper-Lohengrin aura he wanted to project.

Here is a Real Audio link of this conversation, which appeared on Radio Finland's site in October 2004. It is heavily editted, as in a Fisking, but if you go to minute 8:00 of the 29:00 minute clip, you can hear for yourself the accent Ganz did to perfection.

Hitler Conversing with General von Mannerheim of Finland

The other surprise is that no matter how involved we as viewers become with the story, and there are enough good characters (Traudl herself, a practical, non-ideologue soldier-physician who asks to stay behind in Berlin and saves countless people, a little boy based loosely on a Hitler Jugend lad decorated by Hitler himself, the scene of which is reproduced perfectly in this film) to justify a spectator sympathy, yet one never feels any connexion or emotion at all towards them.

But yet the same is true for the villains! I was surprised at how little disgust I felt throughout, even towards Hitler himself.

In perhaps the best scene of all in this film, the actrees portraying Magda Goebbels has the onerous task of killing her six children in their sleep, after she has personally fed them drinks laced with barbituates, a la Jim Jones in Jonestown.

She slowly, without emotion, sticks the cyanide capsule in her children's mouth, and as we hear that chilling "crunch" each time, we marvel at the deft hand and emotionless demeanour, not at the contemptibleness of the act itself.

And I think I know why that is.

If you imagine Susan Smith, the woman who drowned her two sons in a lake, doing what she did, you are liable to hate her and her inordinate selfish lack of humanity. She is an unnatural mother, fit only to be reviled.

But not Magda Goebbels. Why? I kept thinking.

Because she followed her children later into oblivion, and thus showed that she was less unnatural mother, than demented by an idea and seduced by the power she had attained. In real life, this woman was photographed, idolised, lionised, held up as the ideal embodiment of all that was Nazi, her life a choreographed procession of wealth, influence and glamour. She was a cross between Evita Peron and a Ruritanian Queen.

And quite literally, she was faced with the end of her whole existence, never mind her life. She never hesitated.

Think of all the historical moments you know or can imagine regarding Hitler's last days in that bunker:

  • The killing of Blondi, Hitler's beloved German shepherd, the first to test the effectiveness of the cyanide

  • The suicide and later murder of the of the whole Goebbels clan

  • The suicide and later murder of Adolf Hilter and Eva Braun

The viewer never feels the remotest sense of emotional release at all. Neither happiness, revenge, elation, anger, or less probably, sadness.

(Sadness because one could have fallen for an actor's portrayal of an historical personage, such as the case with the air-headed Eva Braun. Even then, though she was a pawn and just a silly boob of a woman, she was generous and loving all the same, and yet one felt nothing)

And this is when I knew the film, through the elapsed 60 years I have mentioned on top, had finally bridged that divide, that chasm of history, which allows a people to look at their own desreputable sides, and instead of showing remorse, guilt, or even anger, can portay it with precision, with accuracy, and without any hyperbolic emotion at all.

It's as if the director could say to us, "This is history. This is the way we think it happened", with no forced feelings of guilt, either from within or without.

After 2 hours of being a fly on the wall of Hitler's bunker, you walk away edified, slightly aroused, like overhearing a conversation about a person who has no connexion to you, and getting the thrill such a voyeurism usually gives one...but with nothing else to cloud it.

Yes. This was a healthy film.


  • Susan Smith?

    'Ich bin nun ganz in deiner Macht.
    Laß mich nur erst das Kind noch tränken.
    Ich herzt es diese ganze Nacht;
    Sie nahmen mir's, um mich zu kränken,
    Und sagen nun, ich hätt es umgebracht.'
    (Boito's is also something.)

    It's hardly old news, nor incomprehensible.

    By Blogger JSU, at Sun May 22, 01:28:00 am GMT-4  

  • Lovely and apposite aria though you quoted, that's of course not the thrust of my point.

    There's always a reason, but like Medea, Magda Goebbels was more than just a sordid, disgraced and disgraceful woman.

    She was consummed by an idea, and the collapse of her existence, and her dementia actually subsumed her completely.

    Unlike Susan Smith, who survived. :-/


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sun May 22, 09:16:00 pm GMT-4  

  • "The viewer never feels the remotest sense of emotional release at all. Neither happiness, revenge, elation, anger, or less probably, sadness."

    Having written that, you will certainly understand that exactly this sense of emotional detachment was the main beef of the film's critics in Germany. Some of them have labelled it "empty" or even "superflous". The problem is of course that the film tries to bridge the gap between docu-drama and epic cinema, and, at least in my opinion, doesn't quite succeed in it, although it's a valiant effort.

    I take it you know about André Heller's interview with Traudl Junge just before her death, "Im toten Winkel" (Blind Spot) and for my part, I prefer it to the film. Junge's haunted memory about her own young self, a self she has never forgiven for being that gullible, gives you a sense of tragedy far beyond what the film conveys. Put next to "Judgement at Nuremberg" it would explain more about what Nazism was than the umpteenth sensationalist documentary since those tend to disregard "the banality of evil" you mentioned.

    But for me, the banality of evil isn't what Hitler had for his last meal, either. It's those rare moments among all this Hitler - forgive the expression - "hype" when you actually do realize that it's happened *right here*, and not *back then*.

    Alois Brunner, Eichmann's "best man", was born in a peaceful village in Southern Burgenland, just like the one my grandparents came from, and he worked in a local grocery store just like the one I went to when I was a small boy visiting them, before embarking on a Nazi career in which he would be responsible for the death of more than 100.000 jews. Just like this.

    Or when you hear a person with a distinct and "gemütlich" Bavarian accent (it might have been Eichmann - it was a voiceover in a documentary about Victor Klemperer), the kind of voice you would expect declaring the winner of the latest bee keeper competition, saying "How many Germans will say 'yes I don't like Jews but this one Jew I know, he isn't like the others, I don't have anything against him' - to have gone beyond that, that was our greatest accomplishment".


    Also, if the film portrays a change in attitude towards the Nazi years, it's probably less of a normalization, but rather a mythification - and yes, the death of most witnesses has a role in that. With fewer and fewer people alive to tell their stories, their perceptions, their truths, the way is open for both: the exact assessment, the completely neutral evaluation of facts - it's what Eichinger's film tries to do - and it's opposite: the perception of Hitler as devil incarnate, as fascinating embodiment of evil, and of the Nazi years almost as a curiosity to be pointed at.

    (All this not taking into account the still existing, at least in Austria, not so much in Germany, everyday political banter with its incessant fingerpointing, namecalling, selfstylizing, all for political means. Austria, with its dual and ambiguous culprit/victim rôle has always been more susceptible for this kind of stuff. But this would merit a post of its own.)

    This development can be seen for example in the fact that just when "Der Untergang" was finished shooting, the next production used the same set to produce the three-part TV film "Speer und er" ("Speer and him"), trying to deconstruct the "good Nazi", Hitler's favourite architect Albert Speer (also based on the work of Joachim Fest).

    Hitler is played in this production by Tobias Moretti, one of the most popular actors in Austria, and the sheer fact that after decades where no actor would even go near that rôle with a stick two of the best actors around have a go at it speaks volumes.

    Or, on a more sobering note, as put by a recent letter to the editor in "Der Spiegel":

    "I am sorry to say that since you continously put images of Hitler on your title page I have to cancel my subscription: I live abroad and can't read your magazine anymore in public places - people see it's German, they see Hitler, and they draw conclusions."


    I also listened to the "Hitler's normal speech" bit you provided, and (I'm almost bound to say: of course) it didn't sound anything special - and also, after a few decades in Germany, there weren't much traces of Austrian* inflection left, as is natural for most "ex-pats" (yes, it's true, linguistically they assimilate us, but we never assimilate them: after a lifetime in Austria a German will still sound like a German, no matter what)

    Oh, and if you think Ganz' accent was thick - my, my, there are many regions in Austria where you will be in for a hefty surprise!!!

    * The region Hitler came from, the Innviertel is a kind of "bastard" between Bavaria and Austria. In the War of the Bavarian succession (1777-1779) Austria had at first wanted to exchange the Austrian Netherlands (i.e. Belgium) with Bavaria. In the end we had to settle for the tiny bit of it where Braunau lies. What a bargain! ;)


    By Blogger divis, at Mon May 23, 02:00:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Werner, if I was detailing a kind of reply my heart's desire could have requested, I don't think I could've done any better than what you wrote above.

    THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR THE EFFORT, and your opinions expressed therein. :)

    Now, speaking of deconstruction, let me comment on your points:

    I'm used to Germans being very touchy about their Third Reich history -- this is normal and correct, because it's an abominable reflection of a certain madness which overcame Germany and the world at the time.

    But more than that...

    During the famous Historikerstreit (Historians' Debate) which launched in the wake of President Reagan's visit to Germany in the mid-80's and preceeding the General Election of 1987 -- and specifically, to the military cemetery of Bitburg, where Chancellor Kohl was criticised for attending since Wehrmacht soldiers also lay buried there -- there opened the first healthy, and intellectual debate of the Hitler Years in Germany, which is a linear sequence leading up to this film, IMHO.

    (As an aside, it would only be in Germany, possibly France, and perhaps Italy, where such a frank publicised debate would be led COMPLETELY by historians. Here's a quick bit of trivia -- which is the only Historian/Philosopher ever to win a Nobel Prize? Theodor Adorno, of the "Frankfurt School")

    For the first time, Germans, not foreign historians like Sir Alan Bullock, journalists like William Shirer, film makers, or documentarists were able to hammer out their points publicly, in a series of point-counterpoints published in newspapers, Der Spiegel, etc. all over Germany, regarding the fateful Hitler Years.

    Historians who contributed to this debate included, the self-same Joachim Fest, Jürgen Habermas (long considered Germany's foremost living intellectual), Klaus Hildebrand, Hans and Wolfgang Mommsen, Ernst Nolte, Martin Broszat, Micha Brumlik, Rudolf Augstein, and Prof. Imanuel Geiss of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

    This last name is important because he seemed to offer a level of balance to the debate, saying point-blank that some historians, "denounce those who disagree [with their viewpoint about Nazism] as close to Nazism (Augstein), and suggest to their unwitting readers that...that the neo-conservatives are triving to deny or trivialise the fact or historical relevance of Nazi crimes."

    Excerpt Forever in the Shadow of Hitler [pp. 147-9].

    This is precisely the attitude that the film does away with -- that desperation to feel the weight of history forever on the shoulders, which if done for merely that reason, seems to make a mockery of the very real feelings of guilt they have.

    Instead, it just feels like an auto-da-fé of anti-Nazism.

    This isn't healthy, a word I keep using because to achieve health, sometimes you must experience disease.

    The German mind was as if paralysed by constraints on it, which I see being unleashed slowly but surely.

    And quite the opposite of people not taking the Hitler Years as seriously as they should, I predict that this attitude will lead to even better exploration of the topic, than what has come before it (albeit I ascribing too much to this film -- which is not my intent).

    And no, I haven't seen the documentary you have mentioned about Traudl Junge; HOWEVER, I have seen many many excerpts of the interviews she accorded before her death, where you can see her earnestness, quite different from Leni Riefenstahl's mea culpas, which always seemed tinged with a very real guilt.

    Many people who work with famous historical characters must be in a quandry personally. They know them very intimately, and as often happens, you get sentimentally attached to someone quite beyond their actual personalities or actions.

    When that happens, and when you see the outcry they sometimes garner from outsiders, you feel protective of them, not because you agree with their viewpoints necessarily, but because you wish to have your more intimate knowledge of them better known.

    Finally, I have to say that I too am unnerved by certain political factions in Austria, since Austria escaped in Western minds, the full brunt of Nazi guilt in the Second World War (and was almost absolved of any guilt in World War I, which alas Austria triggered).

    It's rather like what happened vis-a-vis East v. West Germany.

    Since East Germany fell to the sphere of Soviet domination, with tightly controlled press, etc., they never got that full dose of hatred and venom which West Germany received, post-WWII.

    And to a lesser extent, neither did Austria, where the public debate on the matter was never as intense, allowing a certain attitude to remain unchecked.

    Obviously, I also don't need to tell you that the collapse of the old Habsburg Empire also had as its personal problem, that of 'mischling' immigration and multi-nationalism, which Hitler himself decried.

    Therefore, I'm not all surprised that there are demagogues in Austria who still can get away with saying their frankly racist or anti-immigrant opinions in public.

    Again, fantastic reply, Werner, thanks!


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon May 23, 04:14:00 pm GMT-4  

  • That should be Hans Mommsen not Theodor Adorno, who won a NP too though. :)

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon May 23, 04:16:00 pm GMT-4  

  • In my opinion, the reason for no representation for Dr. Theo Morrel (that I know of) in the film is that Herr Doctor helped turn Hitler into a Meth addict, and this, on screen might be seen to rationalize AH's behaviour. In addition, at least one female, Constanze Manziarly, was raped and murdered by the Russians. So were others. This is not depicted.

    By Blogger Canuck308, at Tue Oct 06, 02:00:00 pm GMT-4  

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