On Monsters: Portrayals of Nazis and Hitler in Hirschbiegel’s Downfall

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights Public Domain Image via Pixabay
Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights
Public Domain Image via Wikipedia 

What is the role of the artist in dealing with the dark side of humanity? How do we portray evil?

My husband and I recently watched Downfall (Der Untergang), which counterpoints the horrific shelling of the undefended citizens of Berlin with the slow disintegration of the Nazi regime and of Hitler himself. We were glued to the screen, unable to push the pause button and eat dinner. This film by Oliver Hirschbiegel gives a very personal and devastating account of the last days of the Third Reich. So personal that many Germans were uncomfortable when it debuted in theaters in 2004, arguing that giving Hitler humanity and portraying any Nazi with sympathetic traits amounted to promoting Nazism.

The cast is wonderful, especially veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as Hitler. If you have seen any of the countless YouTube parodies that use footage of a Hitler meltdown (it has been used to illustrate everything from delays in the design of the Boeing Dreamliner to real estate foreclosure) you have seen Bruno Ganz in action. But there is much more to his interpretation of the most hated individual of the 20th century than tantrums of spitting and screaming. Ganz spent months getting the voice down: the growl, the speech patterns, the absolute devotion and passion of the delivery. He also explored the ravages of Parkinson’s disease: the uncontrollable shaking of Hitler’s hands and his attempts to conceal them behind his back when speaking in public. Emotionally unstable, he careens from kind acceptance and encouragement of his young secretary to deriding the German people as failures who could not deliver his grand and superior vision.

© IMLS Digital Collections with CCLicense
© IMLS Digital Collections with CCLicense

Does the realization of Hitler’s humanity make him any less monstrous? The loyalty he, an imperfect and crude man, inspired in those who followed him to the end is chilling: a mother poisons her children rather than see them wake up in a defeated Germany, soldiers and diplomats blow their brains out rather than surrender. Would we be more comfortable seeing a tank, a gun, or a faceless uniform as a villain because this denies the humanity of people who do such horrible things? When we see Hitler pet his dog or compliment his cook does that make us wonder about ourselves?

What is so disturbing is that the violence of World War II was not perpetrated by monsters. These were not aliens who saw humans as a life form slightly above cattle, immortal beings who carelessly vied for power, or powerful animals that knew no better. These were people who suspended humanity and civility in order to accomplish murder on a grand scale and were swept into a storm much larger than themselves. Is that not more terrifying?

As artists, we spend time exploring humanity. It is impossible to do so without coming in contact with darkness, with feelings and deeds that are destructive. When these get too big and painful for us, we create monsters as symbols to help us distance ourselves from them. This is necessary. Equally necessary are works that let the monster mask slip away, reminding us that what lies beneath is a human face.

What are the monsters in your work? Do they help you understand what it is to be human or do they obscure it?

6 thoughts on “On Monsters: Portrayals of Nazis and Hitler in Hirschbiegel’s Downfall

  1. Ash Reply

    I found your post very interesting – especially as it tackles some ideas that I’ve been grappling with for a while, such as how I abhor media which uses Nazis as a generic enemy, interchangeable with zombies or Martians. But, also, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea of evil and the monstrous and how they’re portrayed in art. The conclusion I came to eventually was that there are no evil people, only evil actions, deriving from evil impulses.

    Would you agree wit that assessment, or do you think that people can be inherently evil?

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Hi Ash!

      I am so glad that the post spoke to you! Yes, our media still likes to blame the Nazis. Part of that is because it is easy, part of it is because the world is still having difficulty dealing with them.

      It is my feeling that people are not good or evil, people are good and evil and shades of better and worse. We all have things we aren’t proud of, things that hurt others. In the same way we have instincts for helping them, too. Some of our impulses and actions are not really good or bad, but a gradation in between. If I choose to eat an entire gallon of ice cream, that isn’t evil, but it certainly isn’t good either. It will have repercussions on my health. Every choice we make has repercussions on the self and the world because it puts us in a different place.

      I do believe that evil can be habit-forming. If we get used to thinking and doing things that hurt others it becomes easier to do so. That evil sticks to us and becomes part of who we are, thus transforming us. In this fashion humans approach becoming evil. But even the greatest dictators had a capacity to be kind, to do something nice for a friend, family member, pet, or stranger. Do you think this makes them more or less dangerous?

      As to evil actions and impulses, do you think the two have to appear together or is it more complicated?

      • Ash

        Wow, your possible explanations for the way the media deals with the Nazis are really interesting – certainly the best I’ve come across. Usually, I’ve just seen it as a form of narratorial laziness, but I like this more complex view.

        As to dictator’s and their ‘more human’ qualities, I would say that it has no real effect on their capacity for dangerous deeds. About evil impulses and evil actions, any way I can think about it, the two must co-exist – not alone, certainly, there can be other feelings and thoughts mixed in there. For example, it’s as Hamlet says, ‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. Though, I think you are right to point out that there is a great spectrum of human action.

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  3. katmcdaniel Reply

    Reblogged this on synkroniciti and commented:

    Here is an older post that fits splendidly with the villain theme. It’s about Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler in Downfall and deals with humanizing villains.

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