Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Two Dictators

I caught Oliver Hirschbiegel�s chilling film, Downfall last night on Channel 4�s latest offshoot, More4. If it weren�t for the fact that the picture was actually released in 2004, it would definitely be a contender for my picture of the year. What was disturbing about the movie was not so much the scenes of Berliners losing limbs for Hitler�s insane ambition or the atmosphere of G�tterd�mmerung in the uncannily bright F�hrerbunker, but the fact that Bruno Ganz�s superlative performance brought some measure of humanity, indeed fading charisma to the portrayal of the palsied dictator. Aspects of the film�s atmosphere made me uneasy: at certain points, characters such as Traudl Junge (played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who sported implausibly luminescent skin for a bunker dweller) look at Hitler was something like distaste when he starts ranting about Jewish conspiracies. I felt that this was a piece of anachronistic special pleading. I mean, an intimate of Hitler who finds anti-Semitism distasteful?More broadly, it seems Downfall is part of a larger revisionist project that is concerned with emphasizing the suffering experienced by German civilians during the latter stages of the war. Such examples from this tendancy that could be cited include W. G. Sebald�s On the Natural History of Destruction (dealing with the Allied bombing of German cities), Gunter Grass�s Crabwalk (which deals with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sank with an estimated 9,000 people) and even a book by a British historian, Anthony Beevor�s Berlin – The Downfall 1945 (dealing with the rape of the majority of Berlin women by Red Army soldiers). However, the hissed words of Ganz�s Hitler seem painfully apposite when considering the plight of ordinary Germans in the war: �There are no civilians in this war.� The populations of Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, in particular would have undoubtedly acknowledged the veracity of such a statement, at least those left living (let�s not forget that per 1,000 of population, the Poles lost an incredible 160). Moreover, the panic that gripped Berlin in the opening dire months of 1945 was fuelled by the knowledge that the Red Army’s retribution could mirror the Germans� despoliation of the Eastern lands following Operation Barbarossa. But Ganz can’t be faulted for imbuing his Hitler with qualities that go some way in explaining the fanatical devotion and obedience manifested by his inner circle. There�s always a temptation to depict Hitler on screen as a pop-eyed ranter, and although the film did show this aspect, it also hinted at the way he manipulated people by both showing and withholding approval. This humanizing of a mass murderer struck a chord with me as I�m currently making slow progress through Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. There�s an excellent review of the book by Andrew Nathan in the London Review of Books, which questions the book�s methodology. My issue with the book rests on the fact that Chang and Halliday�s depiction of Mao is so relentlessly negative (slightly understandable when dealing with a man who is considered to be responsible for an estimated 70 million deaths). According to one story told about Mao�s successor, Deng Xiaoping conceded that Mao was 70 percent correct but only 30 percent wrong. But Chang and Halliday seem to think that Mao might not even have been 1 percent correct. Yet this relentless disparagement and demonization makes the reader wonder how did this shallow conniver succeed in uniting a vast and ancient country for what was effectively the first time? The man must have had some kind of brilliance, even it was put to dark ends.Perhaps my view is clouded by personal tastes: I find it hard to find a character entirely alien if they abhor manual labour and somehow succeed in persuading people to carry them across half of China while they reclined in a litter, obliviously reading.