This module is called “Curiosity.” Why?
One of the changes that has come to the Vergangenheitsbewältigung process in Germany is a greater openness to the Nazi past as history. By this I mean that while the process of coming to terms with the past in the 1960s through the 1980s was focused on highlighting and criticizing Nazi crimes, and as a result the generation of people, many of them still alive, who aided and abetted these crimes actively or passively, there was a significant shift in the 1990s. German media contained stories of victimhood alongside the usual stories about the perpetration of crimes against humanity.
Some people are quite concerned about this shift. There’s a fear that if curiosity becomes the watchword of German dealing with the past, the crimes of the Nazi regime may become relativized, and the uniqueness of the Third Reich and the Holocaust will be forgotten.
(One of the best examples of this wave of curiosity is the Oliver Hirschbiegel film Der Untergang (Downfall). We’ll be discussing the film in depth in order to determine how much it participates in this shift towards curiosity.)
There’s also the possibility that by making the Third Reich more of a curiosity, it could pave the way for a reemergence of Nazism. This actually seems to be happening. Read this article about an incident earlier this year:
Your task: The AfD (the party of the politician discussed in the article above), came in third in Germany’s elections in September, 2017, a remarkable accomplishment for a party that had only been formed some four years previously. What is your reaction to the story about the party and its member Bernd Höcke?
Downfall, Part One
The reason that I wanted everyone in the course to watch Downfall was because it marks a departure. There had never been a big-budget Spielfilm (= feature film) about Hitler made in Germany before. There had been numerous documentaries and the like, but it had never been considered in good taste to make an historical film about Hitler. And this is one more indication that German society’s attitudes to the legacy of the Third Reich is changing.
Most people alive in Germany today were born after the Second World War; most people entering university weren’t even alive when the wall between East and West Germany fell in 1989. It is especially these younger generations, with their exposure to the world through travel and the internet, who are probably the most eager to move on past the Third Reich. From what I have read through various media outlets, and from what I understand through extensive contacts with university-aged Germans, many of these young people have reached a saturation point for information on the Third Reich. They receive instruction about it in school, they read about it in the media, they see the memorials throughout the country and so on, and there is a general sense that, while it is extremely important that the horrors and lessons of the period never be forgotten, there has been enough exposure. “They get it,” in other words, they understand how bad it was, they don’t ever want to return to that kind of state, and they would never think of practicing that kind of prejudice.
So, if all this is true, why the interest in films about the Third Reich? Aside from Downfall there have been other feature films since the mid-2000s that portray the Third Reich in a historical fashion. Many observers feel that the rise in such films demonstrates the growing confidence in united German society, a normalization of society that has occurred in the past 10 years and allows that society deal with the horrors of the Third Reich in a more normal fashion (the way the United States can deal with its past of slavery, etc.).
At the same time, Downfall has come in for some criticism as well. Read these two reviews of the film, one from a film reviewer for the New York Times, and one a review by the eminent historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw:
Your task: What do you think the biggest issues are surrounding the film?
Downfall, Part Two
Filmmaking is about making choices. The director has a story that he or she wants to tell, and then must make choices about how to tell it. Should I use a close-up or a long shot for this scene? Should there be music in the background here or not? Should the lighting be natural or artificial? The thousands of choices that go into telling a story on film are all predicated by one over-arching decision: what kind of effect do I want this film to have on the spectator?
If you’re making a film about Hitler, as Oliver Hirschbiegel did with Downfall, these choices and decisions are fraught with an extra touch of anxiety. Like most normal people, Hirschbiegel has no truck with Nazis, and he in no way wants to create a film that would somehow excuse Hitler of his crimes or glorify him as a martyr. But he does want to produce an entertaining, suspenseful film that gives insight into a character’s motivations, emotions, psychology, etc. That can be a difficult balance to maintain. And the choices he makes in certain scenes, etc. serve to signal to the audience how they should react to the action.
For example, consider the film’s use of the character of Traudl Junge, the secretary. We are introduced to her first as a real person, the octogenarian who is interviewed for a documentary film. (If you ever have a chance to see that film – Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary – do: it’s fascinating.) Then the film starts, and we see Traudl and the others going for the job interview to end all job interviews. This simple juxtaposition – real Traudl with portrayed Traudl – establishes for the audience a connection with the secretary, and as interested as we are in seeing Hitler, our perspective into the film is Traudl’s perspective: we know that she’s the character we should be following, and so we follow her. In essence we identify with her; she seems to be very nice, and we assume that she’s an essentially good person in an essentially bad or evil environment.
So, because we identify with Traudl, her actions and reactions will resonate more strongly with us. You’ll notice that the camera will often catch Traudl’s reactions to the action going on around her, and her incredibly large eyes will become a touch larger when something really odd happens. The best example of this is when Hitler dictates his political testament to Traudl. When he says something along the lines that international Jewry is responsible for all of Germany’s (and his) troubles, Traudl looks up at him with a look that can only be described as frightened wonder.
Now, Hirschbiegel didn’t have to do this, he didn’t have to include the shot of Traudl. So why does he? He needs to give us, the audience who identifies with Traudl, an outlet for our disgust, a chance for us to demonstrate through Traudl that we disagree with Hitler, that we distance ourselves from his crazy and hateful ideas. The film does this time and time again, in such a subtle manner that you might not even notice that it’s happening, in order to establish very clearly that this is not a film that glorifies Hitler. If the film didn’t do this, the spectator might become repulsed by the film and not be able to watch it with any kind of pleasure or interest, which of course would be death for the film.
Your task: Can you think of any other scenes where something similar happens to what I’ve described above?
Downfall, Part Three
The film Downfall was criticized by many when it appeared in 2004. As is usual with films that are historical in nature, many criticized inaccuracies or other factual errors. (Go tohttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0363163/goofs to see a list of such errors that readers of the Internet Movie Database have put together. These are obviously people with too much time on their hands.) While such errors can sometimes have important consequences for a film, I don’t think any of them have any real importance in this film.
More important, however, is the general portrayal of Hitler and other leading Nazis. Part of the portrayal, especially when Hitler is looking at his model of a future redesigned Berlin, corresponds to the Hitler we learnt about earlier in this course, a fantastic dreamer who is captivated by artistic and architectural visions. That scene is so ironic: here’s Hitler saying that this new city, to be called Germania of all things, would preserve German culture for a thousand years, yet meanwhile the bunker is being hammered by Soviet artillery.
Another aspect to Hitler’s character that the film stresses is his lack of mercy towards civilians. Both he and Goebbels show utter disregard for the plight of civilians. That’s why the figure of young Peter Kranz – a non-historical figure – is interesting, because through him and his father we spectators see the actual misery that these civilians go through. Young Peter’s devotion to the cause can make us angry; Hitler’s awarding him the Iron Cross seems like such an empty gesture, demonstrating the cruelty and heartlessness of the leaders of the Third Reich in vivid detail.
But there are other aspects to the film that disturbed a lot of people. Wim Wenders, one of Germany’s most important filmmakers, wrote a very critical article about the film in Germany’s leading weekly newspaper. Wenders pointed out that the film does not show the actual death of Hitler (nor of Goebbels, for that matter), and that the viewer never sees Hitler’s corpse (except wrapped in a blanket). Wenders finds this problematic because without seeing Hitler’s mutilated body (gunshot through the head), Hitler’s demise can be romanticized. Seeing a dead body, especially one that would look very ugly in death, would hammer home the point to the viewer that Hitler was broken, his spell was broken, and that all he had stood for had been shown to be wrong and false.
But since the spectator doesn’t see this broken body, Wenders argues, the idea of Hitler as a kindly man (as witnessed at the beginning of the film when he interviews the secretaries and shows great patience and kindness), and as a man suffering from the stress of his situation (the shaking hand, perhaps a sign of Parkinson’s disease), might remain in the viewer’s head. For Wenders this is unacceptable; Hitler is a monster who almost destroyed Germany, Europe’s Jews, and much of Europe, and any portrayal that doesn’t hammer that point home is a dishonest portrayal.
Moreover, the portrayal of those around Hitler stresses their loyalty without stressing their fascist ideological views. Goebbels is the main exception here, but then it’s easy to portray him and his wife as monsters, especially as we watch Magda murder her six children. If anything, Goebbels might appear as more monstrous than Hitler in the movie, because we develop some sympathy for Hitler – he’s suffering physically, the stress of the situation is making him act a little bit crazy – whereas Goebbels and his wife are portrayed as in control of their faculties for the most part (they only break down once).
Wenders also worried that German society, by accepting such a portrayal of Hitler, was shifting its attitude towards Nazism. This fits into what we’ve talked about in this module about recent developments whereby Germans are more able to see themselves as victims and not perpetrators. For critics of this development, a partially sympathetic portrayal of Hitler is yet another sign that German attitudes towards Nazism and the Third Reich are softening, and those critics fear that this could eventually lead to a renewal of fascist tendencies in German society.
Your task: Do you think the portrayal of Hitler in Downfall humanizes him and, by extension, makes Nazism more palatable?
Specific Instructions for this Review: Curiosity
Please watch this ProfMoment:
Your task: Choose a scene from the film Downfall that you think is key to understanding the movie, and explain why this is so.
Feel free to make use of the content items in the module and the postings of your classmates when composing your answer. (For example, perhaps someone else mentioned the point you’re making in a posting – you can cite that and expand on it.)
General Instructions for the Module Reviews
Please keep the following in mind, and please note the elaborations that have been added (in red):
- your answer should be uploaded as a PDF document – if it isn’t, it will be graded, but you’ll receive no comments.
- your answer should be double-spaced.
- no title page, but there should be a title, your name should appear at the top, and there should be page numbers.
- answers should be within the specified word range.
- good essays have the following: grammatically-correct sentences; coherent paragraphs; no spelling mistakes; a clear argument or point; titles that capture, directly or indirectly, a point being made in your essay.
- if you refer to a reading in this unit, you don’t have to give full bibliographical information, but when you first mention it, give the full title and author’s name. If you refer to material not read in class, provide a full bibliographical citation at the end of your essay (it will not count as part of the word count).
Please note: the question may ask you to make use of the discussions that occurred in the module. There are two modes for viewing the discussion forums, GRID VIEW and READING VIEW. (You can change which you view by clicking on the settings – the gear icon – in the upper right-hand corner of your screen when you’re in the Discussions area of the course.) Play around with the two views to find the setting that works best for you. For example, when I’m reading your discussions during the week and commenting on some of them, I use the READING VIEW, but if I have to read and grade a lot of postings I use the GRID VIEW.