Leo Baeck 2


Jun 2005 Journal

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Doom-laden bacchanale (film review)

directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
At selected cinemas

Taken simply as a work of cinema, Downfall succeeds triumphantly in evoking the frenetic claustrophobia of the final days of the Third Reich in Hitler's bunker, permeated by a schizophrenic tension between hysteria and the cult of death. Bruno Ganz's fulminating Führer is entirely convincing, the physical likeness chillingly real and even the voice almost a replica, according to Hitler's biographer Ian Kershaw. Surrounded by a band of fanatical devotees, with Ulrich Matthes's Goebbels standing out as strikingly sinister, the doom-laden bacchanale inside the bunker presents a defiant contrast to the din of artillery from the advancing Russian army.

Very much in this vein is the impromptu party thrown by a manic Eva Braun, skilfully played by Juliane Kohler, which becomes a virtual dance of death. Eva's counterpart is the rabidly earnest Magda Goebbels (Corinne Harfouch), unremitting in her refusal to countenance any future beyond National Socialism.

In contrast to these demonic personalities, a few figures stand out, principally Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary, played by the charming Alexandra Maria Lara, who comes across as a fresh-faced innocent, and Ernst Gunther Schenck, an SS doctor who appears genuinely concerned to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population. Also a touch removed from the generally inebriated rabble surrounding the Führer are Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, clearly more sophisticated, and SS General Fegelein, Himmler's liaison officer, who is married to Eva Braun's sister. Fegelein's very human anxiety about his pregnant wife and his desire to live, and to save his sister-in-law from the infernal trap in which she has chosen to be caught, are, of course, grounds for his execution.

The presence in the film of these seemingly more congenial characters is an artistically effective foil but is historically problematic. It cannot be coincidental that the film draws greatly on Traudl Junge's memoir and on books by Speer and Schenck. Schenck's service in the Waffen-SS in the USSR is not mentioned in the film, nor are his medical experiments on inmates at Mauthausen. While Traudl is addressed as 'Frau Junge', there is no sign of any husband. Moreover, while the real elderly Traudl Junge 'confesses' at the end of the film that her youth and ignorance were no justification for condoning the regime's atrocities, she could be seen as disingenuous: while she did not formally join the Nazi Party until 1944, her Nazi pedigree was immaculate and she was deemed worthy of marrying Hitler's orderly, Hans Junge, who was killed in action in Normandy in 1944.

While concern has been expressed at the film's depiction of certain human traits in the Führer himself - his affection for children and his dog, and his avuncular demeanour towards Traudl, for example - these traits appear to be historically accurate. Had Hitler been no more than a monster, could he have inspired such devotion? More problematic is the intimation that the German people themselves were the ultimate victims of Hitler's demented gang.
Emma Klein

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