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.