Der Untergang, known in English as Downfall, a film about the last days of Adolf Hitler, is today most well known for being the source of hundreds of parody videos known as “Hitler Rants.”
The reason it works for this purpose is because it so faithfully recreates the era of World War II-era Germany, and effectively delivers its message, which is, effectively: Hitler was batshit crazy.
Ahem… Well, yes. That, while not exactly a new interpretation of der führer, is given something of a more terrifying gravity in Der Untergang by the fact that, to some folks, he seems to be a pleasant guy. He’s magnificently portrayed here by Bruno Ganz, who embodies the insanity of the monstrous dictator so well it’s now a permanent internet meme.
The film is based on the memoir of his secretary, Traudl Junge, who grappled for decades with the guilt of being so closely associated with one of the most evil people in history- yet to her, Hitler was always pleasant, even fatherly, and displayed a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Is this where some of the criticism of this film comes from? Not displaying the Nazis as- in the words of my friend George Mack, who is the most knowledgable historian I know- “Baby eating monsters” all of the time? Generally, when Adolf Hitler appears in films – think Inglourious Basterds or The Great Dictator or even The Producers– he’s some kind of grotesque caricature of a human being. This can apply to the other high-ranking Nazis as well. They often seem more like Tolkien’s Orcs than people. Der Untergang refuses to give them this treatment.
Yet, in my mind, this makes them far scarier- they were not demons; not the Sith; they were humans just like the rest of us. It’s sobering to wonder what each of us would have done had we been part of the regime at that time. Would you have fought back openly (and almost certainly been killed)- as the Claus von Stauffenbergs and Sophie Scholls of the world? Perhaps more secretly, like the Oskar Schindlers and Wilm Hosenfelds? Or would you have fully dehumanized a whole race as so many otherwise ordinary-seeming folk did? Or would you, like Traudl Junge would later fault herself for doing, have turned a passive blind eye to things?
t’s somehow just as bone-chilling to see Hitler crack jokes with Traudl as it is to see him ranting about armies that don’t exist. I mean, hey, we knew the bastard was nuts. But we can’t distance ourselves from him so much if he was just another human. And that is what makes Der Untergang so horrifying.