Downfall (Der Untergang) - Oliver Hirshbeigel- Germany 2004 - Bruno Ganz
Viewed at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle - 19 May 2005 - £6-00
Out of a cradle endlessly rocking……
From the opening shot of Traudl Junge descending into the Wolf’s Lair bunker on the eastern front, to the final shot of Traudl cycling away from Berlin to freedom Downfall reveals itself as a film concerned with the manufacture of innocence. As such Hirshbiegel and his producers are making a statement of intent in relation to German cinema. Downfall is the admittance that it is Hollywood and American cinema that are to be the salvation of the Germans. It is WG Griffith and Steven Spielberg, not Murnau, Pabst, Lang and Herzog, who will exorcise the demons of Germany and point the way to happiness and forgetfulness. Downfall’s mission is the Americanisation of the German nightmare. Wake up Germany and have a latte.
Downfall is predicated as a project on the faking of realism to recreate the final days of Hitler(the bunker set looks and feels like the real thing) In recreating the Fuhrer Bunker and filling it with actors and actresses dressed up in Third Reich period costumes, Hirshbiegel and his collaborators are setting their sights on the obdurate problem of the Third Reich as history: no one was innocent. This state of affairs is simply not acceptable either to the cannons of Hollywood or to Hirshbiegel: there has to be a solution. Hirshbiegel’s solution is simply to run the Bunker part of the movie again and see if anything can be done. The first time in the Bunker wasn’t quite right: Hitler got married and died in setting of Wagnerian proportions which was OK; but there were no obvious good guys, no positive messages coming out. If the Bunker could be run again(a la Bunuel with everyone going back to the positions from which they started) things could be improved; a flame of innocence might be kindled in the story.
So was the Downfall Bunker Project set in motion. The big idea was to film the story with scrupulous attention to detail in order that the structured realism of the set would validate the authenticity of this re-running of history. Within this setting, introducing a language of gesture (mostly from the actors) would give an expiatory framing to this final act of the history of the Third Reich, overwhelming and winning audiences through the suggested pathos. Using filmic devices of montage and shot construction to shape and mold understanding of the critical areas of the action, Hirschbiegel effects a significant modification of the Bunker story: the insinuation of innocence. Audiences may no longer look behind the screen to see where the train has gone, but they have advanced so much that they can forget to look behind the screen at all.
In the manner in which the film has been conceived, shot and edited Downfall’s object is to establish ‘innocence’ as sufficient moral authorisation to distance the self from responsibility. Typically we often suffer children a degree of this authorisation. The Downfall project at inception had to locate child-innocence in its characterisation of at least one of the main historical players and then work the authenticity of this characterisation into the grain of the film - into its style and look. Obviously Traudl Jung Hitler’s personal secretary, was seen right from the beginning of the project as the character with this potential. Such potential in fact that the film pivots on her story to suggest something primally innocent about her and her point of view as a character.
The selection of the actress(Alexandra Maria) to play Traudl was a key decision but not a particularly difficult one. For the part of Traudl as required by Downfall, the facial look of the actress had to suggest a deep set childish innocence - a Lillian Gish sort of look(as in Intolerance) - soft features with nicely set eyes and wavy undulating brown or champagne blond hair framing the face - no angular features(this is Bambi territory).
The film divides up(opposes)between shots and sequences in the calmness of the bunker that are paralleled to events outside the bunker in the hell of a burnt and burning Berlin as it falls to the Russians. The Bunker is an evenly lit space, a bit like an American hotel. Although there is lots of bustle and tracking movements through the narrow corridors providing a sense of compressed enclosure, Traudl is rarely part of this. She floats in a child space gazing at every horror she sees with the same look of surprised sadness and wide eyed innocence. Her face, with its emotional vocabulary has a specific role in the script and in the intentions of the director: it is as a sort of mirror of innocence. Whenever Traudl hears and sees something of the real Third Reich, it’s as if she has learnt it for the first time. Hitler raging as summary executions are ordered, Hitler’s vindication of the Final Solution for the Jews, his callous fury the failure of the German people, the detached preparation for the suicides. At these revelatory moments there are reaction cuts to Traudl’s face. We see: the small movements of her eyes; the merest widening of her eyes or eyebrows; the slight stretching of the skin over her cheek bones and the tremble of her lips. She registers child like reaction of innocence to the horror of knowing. Her facial vocabulary cues the audience to understand that these are terrible things that have been revealed to her and that she had never never heard these things before. Downfall rewrites history as gesture.
In the locked-in world of the Fuhrer bunker, where the truth of the actual situation, the truth of the Third Reich is plain to see and known to everyone present, Traudl with her soft wistful features, is always filmed, captured in sequences and shots, standing a little aside from all this: as if she is outside history. That’s why the film allows her to escape on the bike( assimilating a boy-child for added-value innocence) and, like ET she can go Home on the bicycle as if none of this had happened. By extension the audience are invited by means of the power of filmic suggestive logic, as co-innocents, to join Traudl the child on her bike. The downfall project is delivered.
The new German Hollywood cinema creates for its audiences, as does Speilberg, the face as an ideological comfort zone. It commands from its key actors in any setting, carefully calibrated responses to the exigencies of history that exonerate individual responsibility in the name of innocence to deliver a message that all is basically well and we can continue to eat ice creams and cookies. The film message of Fritz Lang, on the complexities of personal responsibility and institutional contamination; Werner Herzog’s ideas about the infectious nature of madness are now discarded for simpler more reassuring explanations. In Hirshbiegels film world, everything can be sorted out by a cut or a pan that takes us to a close-up of an actress whose eyes open wide in horror as she hears terrible things. Innocence - there’s nothing else to understand. Though of course every facial tick and nuance produced to cue by Traudl is a fraudulent trick - a lie - designed into the Downfall project to subvert history for ideologically motivated ends.
Of course no one knows how much Traudl had come to realise after two years at the centre of the Nazi web. Nobody knows how she thought or felt or responded to events as they unfolded in the Fuhrer Bunker. But a series of responses from her can be falsified and staged that suit the Downfall project. The clip of an interview with the actual Traudl spliced onto the end of the film did not convey to me the image of an innocent woman, more like the idea of a woman trying to evade uncomfortable truths about herself.
If Alexandra Marie as Traudl represents a faked intuitive naif female innocence, then Christian Berkel and Andre Herricke as General Mohnke and Dr Schenck play out the lesser but equally faked roles of male heroic(if muted) resistance, giving the Downfall project a trinity of fake exemplary characters on which to close down the Bunker and by extension the history of the Third Reich.
A final note on the Hollywood method. The overall emphasis of most mainstream Hollywood projects is to create in the film a feeling of ‘realness’. The aim is the suspension of audience belief through this style of filmic representation. The settings, the stagings, the acting has to feel ‘real’. Current Hollywood actors are very proud of the detail to which they research and prepare for roles. Obviously in Downfall Bruno Ganz playing the Hitler role went togreat lengths to establish his authenticity. The objective intention of this emphasis on ‘real’ seems to have an quasi ideological basis, in that it facilitates only a small number of readings of any film, preferably only one. At most points in a Hollywood project the audience will know exactly what the characters are thinking(this of course leaves the film directors free to engage in easy manipulation of character expectations and situations by misdirection of the audience) But by the end of a film the preponderance of definitions available in the film will lead to only one interpretation, the desired one.
As German film embraces Griffiths and Spielberg, it should remember that one legacy of Hollywood to America is an arrogant inability to distinguish between the real from the fake. It was precisely this type of error that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler as many before him, but few with such devastation, exploited the relationship between real and imagined grievances. In Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler found a film maker who could also exploit and manipulate faked images of reality. German cinema should be aware of the consequences of taking any road that falsifies history: there are unfortunate precedents.