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Sympathy for the Devil
Published in Daily News Egypt on 25 - 04 - 2006

CAIRO: My interest in Hitler and the Nazi-era Germany stemmed from one of the most unusual discourses about this issue in my Public Opinion and Propaganda class back in university. Part of the course focused on the use of propaganda during that time and the various, devilishly-intelligent techniques used to shape German public opinion in accordance with the will of the Third Reich.
In order to gain a full understanding of that period, we had another side-discussion about Hitler himself and his beliefs and viewpoints. My professor hardly spoke badly about Hitler, as this was beside the main topic. However, he did speak about Hitler s contemptible views of the Jews and justified the holocaust as a well deserved sentence for a race that was composed of a bunch of traitors, spies and profiteers. The Jews, according to my professor, were sucking dry the blood of the poor Germans and Hitler had no other choice but cutting these roots of evil from the German soil.
I was not, however, so shocked by this claim; our long history of Jewish hatred is well known, after all. Frankly, what repulsed me is the basic idea of finding an excuse for killing millions of people in such a degrading, sadistic manner, no matter what crimes they ve supposedly committed. And if indeed the millions of Jews did commit those crimes, what about the Gypsies, the Roma, the handicapped, the mentally handicapped, the homosexuals or Jehovah s Witnesses? What atrocious crime did they commit to be subject to such punishment? But the questions that lingered the most in my mind is how could any man could continue to have a guilt-free conscious knowing that he s responsible for such mass murders? The answer to this question is the safe proposition history had longed adhered to: A monster, a fiend, a creature that under no circumstances can be classified as a human.
Truth of the matter is; he wasn t. Hitler was, after all, a human, a former artist whose sole ambition in his adolescence was to become an architect. Downfall, the latest of many recent German films set in the country s most disgraceful period, not only displays Hitler s covert human side, but also tries to understand how almost an entire nation could be transformed for 11 years.
The film, which chronicles the last 10 days of the life of Hitler and the Third Reich, is almost set entirely in the Fuhrer s bunker. We are initially introduced to the grim, morbid world of the dictator via the fresh young innocent eyes of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler s new hired secretary. The heydays of the German might are over; Russia and the Allied Forces are attacking from the east and west respectively. Berlin is bound to fall soon, with death looming at every corner of the ravaged capital.
In the midst of all of this inescapable destruction, the Fuhrer (Bruno Granz) vows to fight back, moving back and forth his imaginary troops on maps and insists that victory isn t the distant mirage everybody else knows it is. Hitler is still surrounded by his advisors and supporters, including his mistress Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), his propaganda engineer Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife Magada (Corinna Harfouch) and other senior commanders who are now moving away from the improbable plans of their maddening leader while trying to reduce the losses as much as possible.
Downfall has a very distinctive theme and a plot but doesn t follow the classical narrative style by including a beginning, middle and an end. The film feels more like a documentary or a travelogue through hell. The film flows from one point of demolition to another without any kind of proper relief or signs of hope. We know the outcome of these events, but that s not the point of the film. What s fascinating and unique about this story is watching the process of destruction itself and its effect on the multitude of characters inflicted by it.
The principle character of the misguided flock is, without a doubt, the leader. I cannot begin talking about Downfall's Hitler without mentioning Bruno Granz, the great German actor who played dozens of sad, dreamy idealistic loners, including his most celebrated role as the angel Damiel in Wim Wenders masterpiece Wings of Desire. Hitler was always regarded as the ultimate screen villain, whose grotesque persona became the subject of numerous films. It was always unacceptable for both the Germans and the world to see a different Hitler and that s where Downfall's notoriety emerged: Granz plays Hitler at a time when he was facing his demise. He still rants, screams and announces a series of inconceivably hideous declarations. He doesn t care about the civilians and believes that if his helpless soldiers can t defend their land, then death should be the petty price they must pay for their weakness.
Hitler appears completely engrossed in his ideology and his unreal universe. Nevertheless, the much talked about humanistic side still creeps out of him to give us not only a glimpse of a different man, but also a small aspect of what made millions of deluded Germans blindly follow him.
Apparently Hitler was a vegetarian; he liked good food and always kept up good relations with his chef. He was enormously fond of his dog and was, to some extent, kind and generous to the majority of his staff and subordinates. The most peculiar feature that Granz brilliantly infuses Hitler with is his bare frailty. Hitler isn't the rigid, confident and plainly cruel character we all remember from the various documentaries and footage taken of him; rather, he's now an ailing, dying man with a bent back, shaken, desperate voice and a continuously twitching hand. Such a sight temporarily suspends all memories of the Fuhrer and replaces them by entirely new ones.
The key behind deciphering the behavior of the German citizens lies in simply observing their behavior, along with Hitler's followers. The primary reason for Hitler's rise to power was the humiliation the Germans felt after the defeat in WW1 and the severe injustice imposed upon them through the Treaty of Versailles. Furthermore, the post economic depression and high rate of unemployment left the ordinary dignity-broken citizen searching for some kind of a savior that would rescue the country from those stern conditions. Hitler, with his sincere voice, sense of national pride and everyman's attitude, reached the hearts of his people and became the great father figure of the German public. Hitler, to Germans at that time, wasn't a mere president but the symbol of the German spirit and all it stood far.
Which explains why thousands of Germans decided to commit suicide after Hitler took his own life. There is one scene where a nurse breaks down, asking Hitler to reconsider killing himself and to lead them again into an imaginary victory. The sequence though that accurately portrays the hypnotic state of the German people during those times takes place when a young eager boy enlists in the army, preparing himself for a cause he mistakenly believes in, and then begins to wise up after seeing the repercussions of the war and the Third Reich's policies. Hitler created this bubble for the Germans to reside in and feel free and natural in to unleash their hidden barbarism and gradually erase in the process their individualistic distinction between right and wrong.
Downfall doesn't attempt to make us sympathize with Hitler and I didn't come out feeling any kind of pity for him; but by emphasizing Hitler's humanism, we come to realize that a man like Hitler was no exception, or a fluke in history. There have been many Hitlers before and will be many more as long as there are leaders like him who are controlled by their own narcissism, believing that the only means to change the world for the better is solely through their own questionable, self-righteous visions.
Finally, the film doesn't try to find excuses for Germans at that time and their actions. Germany, just like many other nations in history, wanted a leader to guide them and grants them the sense of security every citizen requires from its leader, employing any required measures. You don't have to think too long to find similar nations in this so-called civilized world of today, using almost the same practices and recycling the whole tragedy all over again.


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