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Der Untergang

i had a conversation with someone last night about The Bunker and when i discovered he hadn't seen Der Untergang, i suggested it. he, however, didn't "want to see anything that humanized Hitler." i don't really understand.... while i know humanizing Hitler is a difficult concept for some, i think it is a grave error to write him off as inhuman or insane.

Der Untergang (2004), a German film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel based on the book by German historian Joachim Clemens Fest and the diary of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge. You've probably seen the dub overs on YouTube of his temper tantrum scene applied to some pop culture event. The Bunker (1981), an American film directed by George Louis Schaefer based on the book by American journalist James Preston O'Donnell. Both films depict Hitler’s last days in the Führerbunker, the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, Germany; where he kept company with his senior staff, support personnel, Eva Braun, and his beloved dog, Blondi. Although there are similar scenes in both films, the presentation of Adolf Hitler is vastly different. Der Untergang instills in Hitler a sense of humanity, showing a man broken by illness, defeat, and betrayal. The Bunker, conversely, portrays Hitler as a demonic lunatic, trembling with palsy, but void of humanity.



Independently produced by Bernd Eichinger, Der Untergang sparked debate for its depiction of Hitler as human. Eichinger, however, is no stranger to controversial Hitler films, having created a stir with such productions as Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland (1977), Das Boot (1981) and Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (1981). He is also noted for a wide range of internationally acclaimed films such as Resident Evil (2002), The Never-Ending Story (1984), Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), Nowhere in Africa (2003), Perfume (2006), and The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008). It therefore surprised some fans, when such an epic film was released in German. Eichinger felt strongly the film should be in German, for the next generation of Germans, “If one shines a spotlight on the greatest physical and psychic collapse of an entire civilization, namely our German nation, then it should--must--also be possible for us to tell this story . . . I think it is time that we, with the means we have, tell our own story and have the courage in what we show to finally bring the main protagonist to the screen” (Jasper, 2004).

Based on O’Donnell’s book, The Bunker is largely told through Speer’s account and the movie parallels this. O’Donnell was criticized by historians for retelling Speer’s account of plans to assassinate Hitler as if it were fact. Regardless, the film tends to focus on Speer’s struggles to be a “good” man, rather than on Hitler’s last days. George Schaffer directed The Bunker, though well known for American classics, Schaeffer had no (nor subsequent) films related to Hitler or the war. The same is true for the producers of the screenplay, though Susskind was a communications officer in World War II. The lack of historical background for those involved with the film, including O’Donnell to some extent, leaves it open to a more “Hollywoodized” adaptation designed to influence audiences over telling history.

In order to “de-demonize” Hitler, Eichinger had to make humans, perhaps even positive German role models, of those around Hitler as well. Blatantly refusing to carry out Hitler’s orders to destroy all of Germany, leaving the people to die, Speer is, no doubt, depicted as a brave and honest hero. Trudl, in her alleged innocence, appears wide-eyed and loyal to her leader and employer. Weilding takes the positive role by finally negotiating a cease-fire. Though not in the bunker with Hitler throughout the movie, the film lauds the humane actions of Dr. Schenck as he cares for wounded soldiers along side Dr. Haase. There are no heroes in the American film. Although Speer’s loyalty to Hitler seems questionable, he takes no real admirable action in the film, and, in the end, merely plays at appeasing Hitler.

Is there a better way to pull the heartstrings of a viewing public than with animals and children? Both films utilize scenes with Blondi, Hitler’s German shepherd, to depict Hitler’s personality. In Der Untergang, it is only near the end, once Hitler has solidified his suicide plans, that Blondi is given a cyanide capsule. Cruel nonetheless, it is seen a gesture to not abandon the dog in the bunker and Hitler does sadly look away as Blondi dies. In The Bunker, the scene occurs early on when Hitler is first provided with cyanide capsules. Upon discovering they have been sent from Himmler, it is discussed that it must be tested. Blondi is removed from her litter of puppies (notice no puppies in the German film), and given the capsule.

Der Untergang plays heavily on the children when depicting the outside downfall of German civilians. Peter Kranz, a young boy of the Hitler Youth, fights in the street despite his father, Wilhelm’s, pleas that he and the other children leave at once. Peter is among the youth decorated by Hitler during a brief ceremony outside the bunker after which Hitler returns underground and the youth return to a hopeless battle (there is an actual photo of this event). When Peter does give up and returns home he finds his father hung and his mother shot by a roaming squad that executes “defectors and demoralizers.” The film takes historical liberty at the close as Peter grabs Trundl’s hand, likely saving her from the Russians, as she attempts to escape. The Bunker does not neglect the Hitler Youth, showing the group of uniformed young boys in formation as they are ordered to serve the Führer well and loaded on trucks toward the front. In other words, while the top officers cower in the bunker, the young children are shipped off to their deaths. In a later scene, six young boys, injured and bleeding, are collected from the hospital to be present at Goebbels’ “farewell” party. At the party the camera pans from the boys, bloodied and bruised, lined up along the side of the dining room, to the Goebbels’ children, impeccably dressed, at the lavish dinner table. Subtle.

The Bunker’s purpose of dehumanizing Hitler is almost forced at times. Hitler is seen eating only once, and then merely a chocolate that Eva places in his mouth during a playful romp in the garden – a romp that serves well to make them both appear insane, dancing about as the country crumbles around them. He does not drink, even when the entire wedding party raises a toast and sips champagne, Hitler doesn’t even hold a glass. Eva, on the other hand, is rarely seen without a flute of champagne. Hitler lacks passion, kissing Eva on the hand when she arrives to the bunker. Whereas, Der Untergang’s Hitler kissed Eva fully and passionately on the mouth in front of the entire entourage when she arrived. The Bunker also depicts Hitler as easily manipulated by Goebbels, particularly in two scenes where Goebbels seems to take delight in feeding Hitler’s irrationality. In the first scene, Goebbels reports to Hitler that Roosevelt has died, announcing enthusiastically, “Fate has now removed the greatest war criminal in history. The Jew-lover finally dies. This is the turning point.” Goebbels invokes Hitler’s hero, the “Great Fredrick,” reminding Hitler of Himmler’s old horoscope, “The prediction of war, a series of setbacks, and then overwhelming victory.” The second scene shows Hitler slouched in his room, beneath his painting of Fredrick the Great, as Goebbels reads to him of the phoenix like rise of “Brave King Fredrick.” Though the painting is shown briefly in Der Untergang, Fredrick the Great is not mentioned once.

Der Untergang is sprinkled with the suicides of Nazi officials and soldiers, while The Bunker chooses to focus on the suicides of Hitler, Eva, and the Goebbels. The most important distinction between the two films’ depiction of Hitler and Eva’s suicides is the display of the bodies. In the American film, Hitler is reduced a crumpled corpse at one end of a couch, while Eva’s body is slumped over at the opposite end. The German film does not show the bodies until they are wrapped in a fiery grave. In his review of Der Untergang, Jurgen Pelzer (2007) argues that not showing the bodies had nothing to do with dignity or respect, but because “Hitler and Goebbels, as the main perpetrators of the overall chaos and the ensuing defeat were not to be shown as victims who could be, albeit for a moment, pitied.” Pelzer further points out how the film spends considerable time showing the calculated murder of the Goebbels children by their mother, a scene, incidentally, much shortened in the American film. The Bunker ends shortly after Hitler’s suicide, implying that the Third Reich fell shamed with his death. This account diverges from the book’s coverage of the “breakout” and subsequent gang rapes of the secretaries by Russian soldiers. Der Untergang continues to show those left fighting and dying for Hitler’s dead dreams but also ignores the rapes.

Brune Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler is eerily brilliant. He is a most convincing and human Hitler who loved his dog, enjoyed the company of children, cared for his secretaries, and was prone to the humanness of anger, pride, and disappointment. Although Hopkins’ Hitler had brief moments of humanness, they were overshadowed by excessive palsy attacks and temper tantrums. The Bunker’s depiction of Hitler as a main character was also inconsistent and ambiguous and it is difficult to determine if it truly intended Hitler to have the central role in the film or if that slot was reserved for Speer. Regardless, it is clear that the American film misses out on the point that humanness makes Hitler’s actions all that more reprehensible; to demonize or make a monstrosity of him is to “push aside any recognition that humans have the capacity to inflict suffering and pain on each other and to renounce responsibility for permitting this to happen” (Morrison, 2004).


References

Hirschbiegel, Oliver. 2004. "Der Untergang." Pp. 155 mins. Germany, Italy, Austria: Constantin Films, Newmarket Films.
Jasper, Dirk. 2004. "Interview mit Bernd Eichinger." Dirk Jasper FilmstarLexikon: as translated in Bendix, John.
Morrison, Susan. 2004. "The Ninth Day and Downfall." Cineaction 65:66-67.
Pelzer, Jurgen. 2007. "'The Facts Behind the Guilt'? Background and Implicit Intentions in Downfall." German Politics and Society 25.
Schaefer, George. 1981. "The Bunker." Pp. 154 mins. United States: CBS.




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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
jdquintette
Mar. 7th, 2011 02:38 pm (UTC)
I read the Bunker about 20 years ago, had no idea it had been made into a movie.
melissamuse
Mar. 7th, 2011 04:44 pm (UTC)
yep...1981. so hard for me not to look at hopkins and see hannibal though!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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