It is a common human illusion that heroes live forever. Elvis, in the minds of the faithful, will never die. He is still regularly sighted in the back lands of the US. But immortality doesn’t have to be literal. In China, Chairman Mao has joined a select number of historical figures and become a folk god, whose sacred image, in peasant dwellings, taxis and long-haul trucks, protects the believers against ill fortune.
The talismanic power of Mao Zedong is curious, considering his personal responsibility for more deaths (up to 30 million in one man-made famine alone) than Hitler. Official propaganda might have made it easier for the Chinese to think of him as “great”, the usual cliche about the late Great Helmsman in the People’s Republic of China. But perhaps that isn’t the point. When villainy reaches the scale of Mao’s misrule, moral distinctions can seem to be redundant; he was great in his murderousness too. What matters is the charisma of absolute power.
Hitler’s image is not commonly used by German taxi drivers as a form of magic protection. And few Germans would find it adequate to describe Hitler as simply “great”. This may be because Germans, unlike the Chinese, don’t have the excuse of censorship for ignorance of his crimes - or, indeed, their parents’ complicity in them. Europe also has less of a folk tradition of worshipping historical figures as deities. And yet I would argue that Hitler’s spirit, too, still haunts us in ways that are no less marked by religious idolatry. The latest German movie about Hitler, The Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, is a case in point.
The film is a masterful reconstruction of Hitler’s last days in his bunker, issuing orders to armies that no longer exist, while preparing for his own death. Based partly on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, and partly on Joachim Fest’s book, Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich, the story has all the melodrama of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods: a tyrant who will bring down his people with him; a great city reduced to ashes; hopeless heroism in the face of barbarism; and of course the violent death of the tyrant and his loved one, Eva Braun.
Much of the drama is observed through the innocent eyes of Traudl, the young secretary, holed up in the dank labyrinth of Hitler’s mad court. The rest is meticulous historical reconstruction and, here and there, sentimental invention, as when Traudl, in an absurdly operatic end, walks away from the devastation towards a new dawn, hand- in-hand with a young blond boy who miraculously survived the onslaught of Soviet tanks and artillery.
But at the centre of everything is Hitler himself, played almost to perfection by Bruno Ganz. He is painfully present, a physical wreck, one hand shaking behind his back, raving against his generals who failed to conform to his fantasies, pinching the cheeks of uniformed children about to die pointlessly, speaking sweetly to his bride, the smiling Eva, behaving impeccably to his secretaries, and complimenting his cook on her excellent ravioli. He is a man of flesh and blood, alive on the screen in a way that has never been seen before. And this is deeply disturbing, especially in Germany, where depictions of Hitler in movies and art have been a postwar taboo.
Wim Wenders, the well-known film director, wrote one of the sharpest critiques of the movie in Die Zeit, accusing Hirshchbiegel of creating a horror film that teaches us nothing about the horror of Hitler. The key word, in his criticism, is Verharmlosung, literally “making harmless”. Hitler cuts such a pathetic figure in his downfall that the film almost invites us to feel sorry for this tragic old man, whose dreams end up in smoke.
This criticism, though not entirely wrong, is a little off-beam. For The Downfall is not about Hitler, the all-powerful monster, responsible for the murder of millions. It is about the capacity of people to worship and obey the whims of an idol, however wretched. It is about religious mania. Wenders’ attack hides a deeper anxiety - the fear of Hitler’s resurrection, of his immortality.
Wenders makes the point that the audience is shown the violent deaths of virtually everyone in the film in gory detail, but when it comes to Hitler’s own suicide, the camera turns “piously” away. Because of this, his death is still wrapped in mystery, and thus, in myth, he lives on.
The first writer to describe Hitler’s end was the British historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper. His book, The Last Days of Hitler, published in 1947, was commissioned by British intelligence in an attempt to demystify the circumstances of Hitler’s demise. The Soviets, who conquered Berlin, were being deliberately vague about it. Trevor-Roper guessed that they were afraid that Hitler’s suicide by shooting would seem too heroic, a soldier’s death, and thus a potential source of glorification. The bunker, they seem to have worried, might easily become a place of pilgrimage. And so the Oxford historian was asked to cast his sober analysis on these matters and make sure that Hitler was truly dead, as a murderous leader and a figure of myth.
However, Trevor-Roper undermined his own project by describing the story of Hitler’s rule, including its destruction, in religious terms. Of Hitler’s potential successors in the last days of the Reich, he writes: “The power of the Fuhrer was a magic power, and no profane hand might reach out to touch it until the reigning priest was really dead.” Or about Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s chief accomplice in genocide: “The terrible high priest of Hitler, who had once served the altar... and presided over the human sacrifices... had become a ghostly sacristan, fitfully haunting the shrine he could no longer tend.”
This is not the world of flesh and blood, but of pseudo-Christian Wagnerian paganism. Trevor-Roper did this consciously, for he saw Hitler as the subject of a religious cult who staged everything, including his death, as a spectacle. The Nazis, to Trevor-Roper, were “a savage tribe” driven by “a primitive superstition”.
In a way, then, Hirschbiegel’s film is more demystifying than Trevor-Roper’s book, for Germans are shown not as mad savages, but recognisable people, who are terrified, cowardly, brave, murderous, merciful, deluded and calculating, depending on the individual, and sometimes the circumstances. This has always been the focus of Joachim Fest’s writings about Nazi Germany. His aim is not to justify, let alone to worship Nazism, but to retrieve some of the honour of his fellow Germans by demonstrating that they were ordinary human beings who had been seduced by a terrible regime. This contains a risk of special pleading, which neither Fest nor the movie can entirely overcome. The wide-eyed secretary and the young boy, as paragons of betrayed innocence, are not the most appropriate symbols for ending this awful story.
Still, the trouble with this film does not lie in the intentions of its makers, or in the “making harmless” of Hitler. Unlike Chairman Mao, who really has become an icon on Andy Warhol silk screens, souvenir watches, T-shirts and musical boxes, Hitler cannot be depicted as a cuddly figure. Certainly Bruno Ganz, in spite of his sad brown eyes, is anything but that. Hitler’s terrifying paranoia and raging bloodlust are vividly portrayed.
The problem lies with the story itself. If Trevor-Roper is right, and Hitler staged his end with the same kitschy taste for grand Teutonic opera as everything else he did, then the movie takes the story at face value. All the technical ingenuity and brilliant acting have gone into the reconstruction of this operatic vision, which is indeed like a ceremonial performance of tribal superstition. It has the elements of a fertility rite: the sacrifice of the King so that life can be reborn in spring. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a late version of this ancient myth.
Like the belief in immortal heroes, this is a deep-seated human idea. The young kamikaze pilots in wartime Japan did not choose to die because they believed in a miraculous victory. They knew the war was lost, but as young idealists, soaked in European romantic literature and ancient Japanese lore, they thought that something better would arise from their sacrificial deaths. This is how history is still taught in many Japanese schools, that Japanese today owe their freedom and prosperity to the heroic deaths of the kamikaze pilots.
Memorials of fallen soldiers from before the second world war, with their eternal flames and Christ-like bronze figures, are not just reminders of the dead, but of the notion that our well-being came from their sacrifice. They are martyrs, and like all martyrs, they are immortal.
This cannot have been what the makers of The Downfall had in mind. But by focusing only on Hitler’s death, and re-enacting his nightmarish version of ancient rituals, they help to perpetuate his mythical presence in our lives, however naturalistic and human Bruno Ganz’s performance. Wenders once criticised Fest’s documentary film about Hitler by pointing out that you cannot just show the imagery of the Third Reich - those grandiose parades, those torchlights reaching towards heaven, those mass ceremonies of sinister power - and think that sceptical commentary will suffice. We will still be mesmerised by the images. Perhaps that was Fest’s point; he wished to show their seductiveness. But this can easily look like a justification of those who were seduced.
To show only the downfall of Hitler is unsettling because, however well-meant, the audience is left with the feeling that there really was something grand, tragic, and perhaps even magical about this catastrophic spectacle - that Hitler was great, even in the manner of his death. The film, in short, takes Hitler’s own stageplay too seriously. This is a categorical mistake, for we should take his crimes seriously - but not his quasi-religious fantasies.
Because of such pitfalls, theatre directors and filmmakers have sensibly tended to stay away from portrayals of Hitler. But of the various attempts, the one that perhaps succeeds best is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, made in 1940. By showing Hitler as a comic character (but not a pop icon, like Warhol’s Mao), Chaplin exposed the absurdity of his pretensions. But, as Chaplin himself later admitted, such a film could only have been made before we knew the full extent of Hitler’s murderous enterprise.
It would be nonsense, and indeed superstitious, to claim that Hitler cannot be played in a film. But it probably works best if we are shown the banality, rather than the grandiosity, of the man. This is not to say that his crimes were banal, but to claim him as a demon lets his followers off the hook. In most respects he was a rather ordinary man who managed to stimulate, exploit and express the basest instincts of millions of ordinary men and women.
To show his banality, or that of other murderers, does not diminish the horror of what they did. One of the best dramas made on Nazi mass murder was Conspiracy, the BBC film about the Wannsee Conference of 1942, when a group of dull bureaucrats decided the fate of European Jews. The wooden language, the sinister formality, the lack of moral imagination, the sheer mediocrity of these functionaries makes the mass murder both horrifying and plausible. To make Hitler and other murderous dictators seem more plausible, we must show what evil comes when all constraints are lifted from ordinary men, and stop finding solace in the twilight of the gods.