Countless films have featured Nazis as their respective villains. From Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), to Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011), to even The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980), Nazis have served as the antagonists when an antagonist is needed that is unequivocally evil. However, while this role may be fair given the real world history that the Nazi Party was a part of and indeed initiated, in many cases where they serve as cinematic bad guys the result is a less than desirable one. Instead of being portrayed and appearing as the dangerous evil that they were and are, many Nazi villains instead appear a bad guys that the audience loves to hate not only because of their inherit nature, but also because of their overall ineffectiveness. The Nazis will always lose in the end, with the lone possible exception being if film is set in the early 1940s in Germany. Overall, because of the stereotypical nature by which Nazis are so often portrayed, the consequence that the Nazis are not perceived as humans arises. This is not to say that Nazis should be sympathized with because of the fact that they are human. The opposite in fact is true. Nazis were and are human beings, and by portraying them as nothing more than simple stereotypes the films that do so encourage a forgetfulness of the evil that can be committed by our species.
Into this scene comes Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004). By portraying Adolf Hitler and his inner circle in their final days, Hirschbiegel’s film gives its audience a candid look at humans whom are widely regarded to be some of the most evil to ever walk the planet. Downfall does not argue against this sentiment, but neither does it go out of its way to reinforce it. Instead of constantly telling its audience what they already know about Hitler, his inner circle, and their doings, the film chooses to examine the psyche of those that it follows in their respective final days. As the film begins, Hitler is at his most dignified. At this time the war is still going moderately well for him and it will be another three years before he takes his own life. Here, Hitler stands upright in contrast to his hunched posture throughout much of the later-set portions of the film. He walks and talks like a calm and dignified individual, and in many ways he is all of these things. This does not make him any less fearsome or evil, nor does it question history’s portrayal of this man; but it does show Hitler as a human being with likes, dislikes, and personality traits that are common to many other humans. Hitler speaks of his dog, Blondi, and it is clear that he earnestly cares for her. This same dog will later be force-fed a cyanide capsule in a prelude to Hitler’s own suicide. But this action does not dehumanize the film’s subject. Instead, it reinforces his humanity while also highlighting the insane world that he has created for himself and others.
As the film progresses, the state of Hitler and those around him becomes increasingly distressed. Hitler’s connection with reality, already frayed by the time Downfall shows him in his bunker, continues to strain and grow weaker. Armies that have long since been defeated are given impossible orders, and all the while it becomes increasingly clear to everyone involved that they are in a Hell of their own making. Hitler at once appears to be completely out of touch with reality and he berates and screams at what little staff he has left, and at the next he is a calm man concerned with the well being of his secretary. Time continues to pass and the bunker begins to grow emptier as suicides are committed while others simply desert, as they fear for their lives. Those that remain, Adolf Hitler, Evan Braun, Joseph Goebbels and his wife, are all shown as raw and complex individuals. While sympathy for these figures is impossible given their associates and actions, Downfall makes it clear that they are all victims of the ideologies and principles that they have created and followed.
Though the world that Hitler has created is an insane one, the film never goes so far as to portray him as such. While Hitler’s sanity can endlessly be debated given his actions, the film does not concern itself with this and instead focuses on the fact that Hitler was well aware of the magnitude and consequences of his actions. The same is true for many of those that surround him. Married to the ideals that she and her husband have lived by for a lifetime, Magda Goebbels personally murders each of her six children in their sleep. Hitler, realizing his and the Reich’s doom, still finds time to blame the Jews and others for conspiring against him and Germany. Heinrich Himmler wonders aloud how he should greet President Eisenhower when the time comes, and many other delusions about the future follow. And while all of these incorrect perceptions about the world may seem as though they would lessen the respective humanity of those that harbor them, the opposite is true. Downfall keeps all of its characters from becoming anything greater than the humans that they are by displaying their flaws and delusions. Hitler is not a malevolent force of evil, he is a man that has lied to himself and others so much that atrocious acts have been enabled and committed. The same is true for those that surround him. They are nothing more than people that have believed something so strongly that they have ignored its consequences until they are forced to face them.
But while portraying its characters as humans falling to their own lies may prevent them from becoming more than what they are, this tactic does run the risk of making the same characters appear as less than human. This is the case in many films that feature Nazis as villains, including some of the films mentioned earlier. When this becomes the case for any villain, some part of their fearsomeness and convincingness is lost. The lone exception to this is when the villain is not a human being at all; such as when it is an animal or some other being. But the Nazis are very much actual humans, and by portraying them as delusional idiots their inherit respect that should be given to them is lost. This respect is not one that is in regard to the Nazis because of their actions, but rather based on them. The atrocities committed by the Nazi Party should not be discounted, but portraying its members as less than human inherently offers that as a consequence. Downfall does not allow this to happen to its characters though. Even though it is clear that they are living in a world of lies and delusions, the film portrays them as they come face to face with the same. Hitler and his coconspirators are shown to understand the magnitude of what is happening around them. For Hitler, this realization takes longer than others, but he still understands that his defeat is imminent. Though, as mentioned, he may blame others for this turn of events, he is never shown to be out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Hitler understands that his demise is coming, and this instills fear in him that Downfall utilizes to keep its character human and convincing.
At its core, Downfall seeks to show the capability of humans when it comes to what atrocities they can commit. Hitler was a human being, the film convincingly proves, and because of this his actions and their consequences should not be taken as some incomprehensible force of nature. Rather, Hitler and those that surrounded him should be seen as an example of what humans are capable of if they give themselves over to certain ideals and disciplines. The characters of Downfall are not sympathetic, not in the sense that their actions are justified rather in that their path to their current state of being is made clear. The film shows its audience the fall of those whom have engaged in an evil until their ends, and it offers no sympathies towards them or their actions. But it does ask its audience to stop and try to comprehend the actions of those that it is showing, and understand that these actions were committed by humans and that their consequences should not be discounted or forgotten. In this, Downfall is fearsomely successful.