Wednesday, 27 April 2005

ugly, gruesome, sly

'Ugly, Gruesome and Sly' is the name of a song my class sang in the end-of-year school concert when I was in grade prep. I wish I could remember more about it than just its name; I also wish i knew why the teacher thought it was perfect for five-year-olds to perform. Her judgement was probably not that good regarding kiddie music, since all the other songs I learned that year were by Boney M.

But this post is not about dear, long-ago Miss Noble and her strange educational practices. It's about Downfall, a new German movie about Hitler's horrible last days which we saw on the weekend, and which is gruesome but not as gruesome as it ought perhaps to be, and ugly in its stylishness, and (unavoidably?) sly as well. Talking it over afterward, I think we both felt the movie was not totally successful. I imagine my remarks are going to be about teasing out possible reasons why, but I warn you now that I don't have any idea where i'm going with this overall. You may like to go read this review which supplies a convincing defence of the movie.

This is much more preliminary shuffling and throat-clearing than I'd normally bother with. I suppose I'm doing it now because the subject of Downfall means it is not one anybody'd ever want to treat lightly or thoughtlessly, or fall into discussing as a purely formal exercise without moral dimensions. And I'm confused.

I felt the film performed a number of ethically dubious manoeuvres in the process of representing horrible real events as bearable movie events. Any film so full of violent death does have to be made bearable somehow, but the ways this movie achieved bearableness left me uncomfortable.


Downfall is a period film, of course, and it does all the heritage cinema motifs: nice clothes, music, dancing, antiques. I don't think massaging the audience into enjoying the historical spectacle is compulsory with movies set in the past. So that it will not all be unremittingly bleak and sordid, the women in the film are dressed very interestingly and flatteringly and beautifully, and the men's uniforms are implausibly crisp and clean, until the end. Nobody has poor teeth or ugly hair or physical disfigurement of any kind. Much is made of the effects of mellow firelight on picturesque bombed-out ruins and on empty marble-pillared Reich buildings. There are a couple of wild parties that work as open invitations to nostalgia, even though the story passes them off as decadent and fatalist.

Downfall supplied a young, beautiful, "innocent" identification figure in the shape of Hitler's personal secretary, played by an actress who looks a little like Anne Frank. So that you may have a person to inwardly cheer for, this woman is shown a couple of times taking dictation from Hitler and pausing and looking round-eyed and startled and taken aback when he mentions his pride at what he did to the Jews. This is quite ridiculous, and perhaps even a bit insulting to the audience: it's like we aren't permitted to have mixed feelings about this person, and the character comes off as a revisionist construct because of it. How could anyone be Hitler's secretary for two years and not know, intimately, what he was? I do understand and even sympathise (a very, very little) with people like the real historical secretary, who appear to have managed to continue to live with themselves after the war through massive psychological denial about what they knew and did and why (Leni Riefenstahl may have been another such) but there's no real excuse for the movie to adopt and perpetuate that delusion.

Violence and violent unnatural death are not shown as particularly gory or disgusting or horrifying. People are shot in the head and fall swiftly to the ground showing just a small black hole on the skin. Amputations and suchlike in the hospitals are seen very briefly as people push through the crowds of injured and dying. When Magda Goebbels poisons her six children, each one dies cleanly and instantly with just a tiny intake of breath. Hitler and Eva Braun locked themselves in their room to kill themselves; the movie camera stays outside and the privacy of their deaths is not breached, a privilege I don't understand why the movie grants them.

Apart from a couple of brief references there is no acknowledgement in the movie of the Third Reich's mass murdering activities. The death camps are taken as read. Instead the evil and perversion and fanaticism of the nazis is expressed through the way they react, individually and as a group, to entrapment and the certainty of defeat. The facts of the situation of the people shut in the bunker resolve themselves into a series of opposites to be chosen from. Die here in the bunker, or run away and maybe have to sleep in a farmhouse. Surrender and save lives, or resist and let more people be killed for nothing. Die a martyr, or live a failure. Live after defeat and accept ruin and ignominy, or commit suicide and leave the cleanup to everyone else. Let your children live in a world you cannot control, or murder them in their sleep. Suicide figures a great deal in Downfall. It seems the film wants to present it as the ultimate betrayal of human responsibility and as belonging to the same all-or-nothing solipsistic madness that fed nazism. Yet it seemed to me to reward or admit the protagonists' belief - that killing oneself is a dignified way of getting out of trouble - by presenting these deaths with accustomed movie tactfulness. Well, I am grateful to be spared the full reality of it, I suppose, but I couldn't help comparing the easiness of the suicides in Downfall with the profoundly shattering way The Seventh Continent (which I wrote a little about when we saw it a few weeks ago) handled similar material.

The thing that remains a very big mystery: why make this movie? To get money? To entertain? To teach people about the nazis? Those seem to me very strange reasons. And I'm not sure I can bracket the question and let it go, as one can generally do with a less ethically burdened movie, because the movie is quite manipulative emotionally, and while that's not a problem in itself, it's difficult to accept if you can't figure out what your emotions are being manipulated in the service of. Reviewers have talked doubtfully about whether the movie "humanises" Hitler, as if it were somehow wrong to admit he was a human being: perhaps they mean the movie might lead us to pity him? That seems an improbable outcome. If anything, the movie's version of Hitler is less human than the real one, because Downfall is so conventionally and obviously a movie.

I've made a mess of this, as I expected to. This is why I don't write much about movies. Publishing anyway.