February 15, 2009
Watching Downfall last night, what touched me more than anything else was the energy that Bruno Ganz put into portraying Hitler – not just portraying, but recreating. What must it have been like to try to get inside that particular head? How do you go about portraying someone who perpetrated the genocide of 6 million people? It was truly incredible to get a sense of Hitler’s megalomania, to see that even in the last days he felt that history was on his side and that if nothing else, he had done the right thing by exterminating the Jews of Europe.
The scenes with Hitler and his military advisers really drove home the desperation – he was still clinging to his unshakable belief that inherently, Germany could not be defeated, while the Russians were literally banging on his door. Some of his advisers (namely, Himmler) naïvely believed that they could just call up Eisenhower and negotiate peace with the National Socialist state still in place. None of them would dare contradict Der Führer while he still lived, and yet most of them had an idea that they really were doomed – leading to a sort of cognitive dissonance where their only logical recourse was to believe that he had information that they weren’t privy to… which, of course, he didn’t. All the while, Hitler was yelling and screaming and ordering the execution of his generals because he truly, truly believed that the military defeat was their fault. Watching this leader just crumble into paranoia and unmitigated wrath in these bunker scenes made it possible to imagine how this man, while he had a more firm grasp of power, was able to command armies of ordinary people into building and running the concentration camps.
There were, of course, his human moments – mostly sitting down to meals with the women in the bunker – but even those did not serve to paint him as sympathetic. You see their blind, unwavering loyalty toward him and he just soaks it up. He tells them that everything’s going to be ok, mostly because it makes him feel more powerful to have these women just take his word for it and he feels like their savior for bringing them hope. You certainly don’t get a sense that he was ever acting out of anyone’s interest other than his own, which is really what makes him a monstrous figure. One of the most emotional moments (well, the whole film is an emotional moment) is where Hitler is espousing his views on compassion – or rather, the lack thereof – that the strongest of the species survive, and to be strong, you must completely eliminate compassion. Well, it’s quite obvious that he had done so. The only creature he feels any amount of compassion toward is his dog, and even then, he has the dog killed in the bunker. Perhaps more humane than letting the dog be shot, but bringing the dog into the bunker in the first place is hardly thinking about what’s best for the dog.
This interview with Bruno Ganz is really quite good for understanding what goes on in the actor’s mind when you make the decision to spend the rest of your career known as “the man who played Hitler” – and played him very well.