Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Our Hitler: the Self-reflexive Image of Evil

Our Hitler:
the Self-reflexive Image of Evil
by Shirley Goldberg

If Dante were alive today working on an updated version of his Inferno, there is little doubt which circle of Hell he would consign Adolph Hitler to. Hitler has become the measuring rod for ‘Evil.’ In the global pantheon of enemies (mostly Arab and mostly ideologically constructed), they are ranked as ‘almost as bad,’ ‘as bad,’ or — when politicians burst a hyperbolic gasket — ‘worse than Hitler.’

still from the film Downfall

One problem with this Manichean thinking, which is being foisted upon society by the religious right, is that it automatically assumes the ‘power of nightmare’ and can be used flagrantly to manipulate the populace. Another is that it offers such a flawed map of reality that it disempowers. Pure theological evil is beyond analysis and beyond remedy. It can only be met with the sword and the military-industrial complex, whereas the more complicated human evils of both the psychological and social species can be understood and remediated — if the will is present, admittedly a challenge since remediation usually involves altering both national and personal agenda, if not basic belief systems.

An essential antidote to these black and white visions of villainy has been provided recently by the scrupulously factual German film Downfall (Der Untergang) and by the questions it raises once again about how such an unimaginable horror as the Third Reich could erupt from a highly civilized, cultured society. Bound up with this is the prevailing taboo about humanizing Hitler or even presenting him analytically as a projection of his society and culture. One example of this taboo was encountered by a group of art historians when they attempted to find an American publisher for a catalogue of Hitler’s paintings, which had been scrounged together from the bunker and the Soviet Union. Reportedly, the collective response was that it would be obscene to display a human side to the ‘20th century’s greatest monster.’

The history of bold attempts to deal with the essential mystery of Hitler on film range from Chaplin’s satiric Great Dictator (1940), to Pabst’s melodramatic version of the last days in the bunker Der Letzte Akt (1955), to Syberberg’s surreal, seven and a half hour phantasmagoria Our Hitler (Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland, 1977), and to Menno Meyjes’ intriguing, speculative Max (2002). Adolph Hitler was, after all, a creation of the film century. His public image was born with Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will (1933) in which he arrived by plane descending from the clouds — like a God — to preside in heroic low-angled shots over the magnificently orchestrated Nuremberg rally of 1933 with its images of adulating crowds, traditional folk costumes, athletic prowess, golden youth and precisely organized patterns of humanity.

Swiss-born Bruno Ganz, whom we associate with the gentle angel from Wings of Desire, gives an unforgettable performance in Downfall as Hitler in his last delusional twelve days in the bunker with the advancing Russians only blocks away. Ganz had studied all the archival footage and recordings to catch Hitler’s physical mannerisms as well as the soft Austrian intonations of his normal speaking voice. We see him as a hunched, defeated man who hasn’t yet accepted his fate. Alternately he plays with his beloved dog Blondi; eats his vegetarian meals with his secretary, his cook, and his mistress; descends into paranoid rages about being betrayed by his soldiers, his officers and the German people; and plans grandiose, victorious military manoeuvres with battalions and equipment that no longer exist. Near the end, his mistress Eva Braun confesses to his secretary that although she has been with him for fifteen years, she really doesn’t know him. He remains a mystery.

Despite the length (two hours and forty minutes), the overload of characters, the claustrophobic, harshly lit settings, and the fact that we know the outcome from the beginning, Downfall is mesmerizing. Part of the magic is Ganz’s astounding performance, and part is the seductive Gotterdammerung theme that German culture has been obsessed with. But most of all it is our curiosity about the people who surrounded Hitler. As the incessant roar of artillery and bombs drew closer, everyone in the bunker knew that the end was coming. Whether out of fear or loyalty or love or denial or simply inertia, no one seemed able to confront Hitler with the truth. Amid scenes of everyday domesticity, cyanide capsules were handed out. Some sought an escape for themselves. Himmler for instance, while trying to cut a deal with Eisenhower, puzzled over whether he should greet the American general with a Hitler salute or a handshake. Most, in a weirdly surreal way, went about their daily chores with an odd normality. His secretary Traudl Junge, in high heels and pretty dress, looked as prim as if she were working in any proper business office.

“The world can get along without ‘Jawohl.’”

The inherent need in film for a character or characters that the audience can identify with presents a challenge in telling this story. When the great GW Pabst made The Last Act, which covers the same span of history exactly ten years after the events, he solved this narrative problem by creating a fictional character, Captain Wust — played by the youthful, blond, angelic Oskar Werner — who is shot confronting Hitler with the ‘voice of the other Germany.’ As he is dying he tells a child soldier (who represents the future): “If you ever know peace, don’t let them take it away. Never let them take it. Don’t say ‘Jawohl.’ Don’t ever say ‘Jawohl!’ The world can get along without ‘Jawohl.’”

With the concept of Germany’s ‘other voice,’ Pabst provided a much-needed identification for his still-traumatized audience. But Oliver Hirschbiegel, telling the story almost sixty years after the events to an audience that has dealt constructively with the issue of national guilt, makes few concessions to popular expectations and sticks as close as possible to the historical record. The candidates for identification are far less obvious than Captain Wust. There is General Monke, the gruff, honest, old officer who reports to headquarters expecting to be shot for failing to follow impossible orders, but is actually put in charge of the bunker. There is Albert Speer who is distanced from the regime as the idealist and artist with his room-sized model of the New Berlin that will rise from the present rubble. And there is Professor Ernst Gunther Schenck, the SS doctor who ignores both danger and orders to wade into the gore wherever he is most needed to treat the wounded.

However, in terms of identification, the central character is Traudl Junge whose words open and close the film and whose open-eyed curiosity observes every detail. Her memoirs provided a major source of information for the film, and she is also the subject of a fascinating companion piece, the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, based on twenty-six hours of interviews taken shortly before her death at age 92. The portrait of the young Traudl and the personality of the elderly Traudl ring remarkable true. She is presented as a naïve twenty-two year-old from a relatively poor and apolitical family when she was first taken at night through the forest to the Wolf’s Lair for the job interview in 1942. In Hitler she saw a ‘kindly old man’ — friendly, paternal, courteous and she felt enormously awed when he chose her for the job. Working for him in the headquarters and the bunker, she was strangely removed from what was actually going on. Hitler himself avoided contact with anything negative to his dream of a 1000-year Reich. He didn’t go to bombed areas, and he travelled through Germany by train with the blinds drawn. After the Battle of Stalingrad, he preferred to eat dinner with his secretaries and cook rather than his officers.

Because Traudl had been ‘shielded from his megalomaniac plans,’ she was shocked later by what she learned at the Nuremberg trials. She speaks of being in a ‘blind spot’ — the one spot in an explosion where calmness reigns. Although it is easy to be sceptical about such a claim, most critics seem to take her at her word — perhaps because she has not tried to exonerate herself. At the opening of the film she speaks of still not being able to understand how she got involved. At the end the 92-year-old Traudl in a clip from the documentary concludes that — considering the criminal atrocities that were being committed — being young and naïve was no excuse. There is an intriguing continuity between the beautiful, curious and courageous fictional character in Downfall (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and her elderly, attractive, intelligent, real-life counterpart in Blind Spot.

Although Downfall makes no pretence of explaining the phenomenon of Hitler, the microcosm within the bunker offers a picture of the forces that helped to put Hitler in power and keep him there. By far the most pathological example was that of Magda Goebbels who methodically drugged her six small children and forced each sleeping child to crunch a cyanide capsule because she couldn’t endure the thought of them growing up in a world without National Socialism.

Even Downfall has been criticized for ‘humanizing’ Hitler — despite its documentary-like authenticity. By contrast, the film Max, a Hungary/Canada/UK co-production directed by Dutch-born screenwriter Menno Meyjes, raises a much greater moral dilemma. Part fact and part fiction, it asks the speculative question: what if the destitute and desperate young Adolph Hitler returning from the horrors of ww1 to his ruined homeland had found some encouragement as an artist?

still from the film Downfall

The concept so shocked the American Jewish Defamation League that they denounced the film without seeing it — only later to revise their opinion and apologize to the director for their prejudgement. Steven Spielberg praised the script but said he could not direct it because it would seem to be a betrayal of the Holocaust survivors. Since the final product is actually a thoughtful film that can be viewed on many levels, the issue is complicated. John Cusack, who has called it a ‘deeply moral movie,’ agreed to take no salary for starring as the fictional Max in order to secure financing for such a controversial project.

Photographed in Budapest by Hungary’s great cinematographer Lajos Koltai, Max is a work of stunning visual imagination as it captures the post-war social chaos of Munich along with the vibrant art scene in which German Expressionism, by artists such as George Grosz and Max Ernst, is gaining ascendancy. With a portfolio of conventional, realist paintings, the homeless, intense, repressed Adolph Hitler, aged 30, enters the scene and is befriended by a fellow-veteran, Max, a Jewish art dealer who has had to give up his own career as an artist because he lost his right arm in the war. But, whereas Adolph has returned to nothing — a humiliated homeland, no family, no money, no fiancé, no job; Max has returned to a wealthy family, a spectacular pre-Bauhaus home, an elegant wife, two promising children, and an adoring German mistress. He also has a monumental and totally chic, three hundred metre art gallery in what was once a locomotive factory. It is definitely not the setting in which to display Hitler’s meticulously accurate paintings of dogs, eagles and urban scenery. Sophisticated and generous, perhaps suffering from a touch of liberal guilt and strangely clueless about the gathering storm — Max feels sorry for Hitler, drags him out to cafes to meet women and encourages him, ironically, to experiment with the new, avant-garde style by digging deep within himself to express his inner anger.

Taken to a more abstract level, Hitler could represent defeated Germany, robbed of its future by the devastation of the war and the terms of the Versailles Treaty, trying with kitschy conventional art to cling to an idealized past, dependent on the good will and condescension of others, and beginning to resent the Jewish merchants and professionals who have somehow survived the war with resources intact.

Meanwhile a rabble-rousing ex-soldier discovers Hitler’s public speaking talent and begins to wage a battle for his soul. At first Hitler rejects anti-Semitism; but, as he becomes aware of his own power as an orator, he discovers how easily he can arouse a crowd when he attacks the Jews.

Hitler is torn between the two, but eventually coalesces them by digging deep within himself and, as he proclaims, making politics his art form.

At another level a contrast is drawn between art and politics. Both are avenues of escape from despair. Hitler is torn between the two, but eventually coalesces them by digging deep within himself and, as he proclaims, making politics his art form. The tragic irony of the ending is not easy to forget — nor the creepy, complex, vulnerable performance of Noah Taylor as Hitler — nor the powerful penultimate sequence that cuts back and forth between the Jewish service in the synagogue filled with warmth and love and the ugly, cold outdoor rally ablaze with hate. Max does much more than touch upon the enigma that is Hitler: it etches in some of the psycho-political forces that constructed him.

However, for a deep cinematic analysis of all the mythic and technological baggage that led to the phenomenon of Hitler, one need go no further than Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler, which at seven and a half hours and twenty-two acts is an exhausting work of intellect and imagination, a work like none other. Combining the banal with the cosmic, it’s a collage of symbolic images, archival footage, recordings, narrators, live actors, puppets — a littered wasteland through which Syberberg’s young daughter wanders, representing the future. It evokes Wagner, Nietzsche, mad King Ludwig II, Karl May and all those who have dreamed of a Golden Age and a race of supermen. As for humanizing Hitler, it devotes almost an hour to a valet explaining all of his peccadilloes including how he liked his underwear folded.

“We met the enemy and he is us.”

Syberberg’s Hitler is no discrete entity of Biblical evil. He is one of us and needs explication. Even his paintings are relevant. Recurrent images of the Black Maria, Thomas Edison’s first motion picture studio, suggest the role that mass media has contributed to the creation of Hitler. In fact Syberberg correlates the rise of mass media with the rise of fascism. And through it all he probes the question of the extent to which Hitler was a projection of his society’s madness, and the extent to which Hitler projected his own madness upon society. Syberberg clearly sees Hitler as an eternal and omnipresent force, with his policies living on in all nations and cultures, especially the United States. Pogo put the proposition more succinctly: “We met the enemy and he is us.” Syberberg’s Our Hitler focuses on Germany but is a warning to all against potential complicity.

In his review of Downfall for the Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert makes a similar point in stating that Hitler “did not alone create the Third Reich, but was a focus for the spontaneous uprising of the German people, fuelled by racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear [which he] skilfully exploited.” One needn’t look far to find the same big four today — racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear.

Shirley Goldberg is a free-lance writer, film critic and film programmer. She is retired from teaching English and Film Studies at Malaspina University-College.

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