The parodic excerpts of Bruno Ganz’s performance as Hitler in Downfall littering the web make me wonder whether the people who publish those nuggets have seen the film, or have any idea what it is about. It’s as if Hitler is nothing but a joke and Nazism a matter of bad taste. That is not an accusation that can be leveled against the film which, whatever its flaws, certainly takes National Socialism seriously. Such treatment doesn’t guarantee it is a good movie, of course, but the filmmakers at least treat a tough subject with suitable respect.
The problem is that Ganz’s foaming at the mouth performance is, to judge by Joachim Fest’s Inside the Bunker, which served as one source for the film, a reasonably accurate depiction of Hitler’s behavior in his final days. Worse, some of the film’s most unbelievable moments, such as Magda Goebbels poisoning her children rather than have them grow up in a world without Hitler, are based on fact. The excesses in the film that make it such facile fodder for diddlers, in other words, depict the behavior of real people who had control over the lives—and deaths—of millions. Perhaps those who have never faced a problem their parents couldn’t solve for them can laugh at those events. I find it rather difficult.
On the other hand, the moments in Downfall that make me guffaw are unlikely to seem funny to younger viewers, because they are calculated to flatter and engage youthful vanity. It is true, for example, that Hitler decorated several members of the Hitler youth for bravery in his final days as seen in the film. The prospect that one of those decorated fanatics had a last minute change of heart to be there to escort Hitler’s secretary safely through the Russian lines is laughable, however, and borders on insult. Incongruous and unbelievable, the ending is a shameless exploitation of the Spielbergian cliché that contrived “innocence” solves all problems, reducing the most horrendous events to pablum by seeing them through the eyes of a wide-eyed adolescent.
Maybe it is impossible to make audiences accept an accurate film about Hitler. The challenge for any actor is to embody the charisma, charm and hypnotic presence to which all who met Hitler attested. Ganz, Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness—all have tried, but Hitler’s catastrophic ability to entrance anyone who met him may be outside the ability of an actor to recreate, particularly when working in a mechanical medium rather than in live performance. Hitler’s mesmerizing talent was simply part of who he was; imitating the superficial expression of it demonstrates nothing but hysteria.
Perhaps the best evocation by an actor of Hitler’s appeal was not performed by anyone impersonating him directly, but by one who had a similar cynicism about manipulating regressive, infantile emotions for political ends: Ronald Reagan. Somehow I doubt the children in the online video garden are ready to make that connection, however.