This last weekend I was perusing the list of the winners for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. As you do. I ended up following a rabbit hole that lead me to one of the nominees in 2004: Downfall (or Der Untergang, as it was originally titled).
It’s a story about, among other things, Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker. It‘s a challenging and powerful film. Very well-made, with a remarkable performance by the always brilliant Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler.
Going down this rabbit hole has left me feeling troubled about the way it was received by some. As seen in the “Controversy” section of its Wikipedia article, several commentators, film magazines, authors, and the like question the appropriateness of how some of the Nazis are portrayed, specifically Hitler. German tabloid Bild asked,
”Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?”
Let it be known that I do view Hitler as a monster. His cruelty and the terror he brought to this world will always sadden and hurt. He’s among the worst this world ever produced.
But he was still a human being.
The film’s director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, on the criticism given to his film, said,
“They just got it wrong. Bad people do not walk around with claws like vicious monsters, even though it might be comforting to think so. Everyone intelligent knows that evil comes along with a smiling face.”
My concern about the criticisms leveled toward this film is about questioning the portrayal of monsters. I feel doing so is an important step for us to learn how not to become an evil person. George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher and writer, famously wrote,
”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We should not shy away from the horror of this man. We should not turn him into a phantom from the shadows of the past. Doing so blinds ourselves to the darkness we, as humans, can create. In that way, I feel those who criticized Downfall for this particular reason were wrong to do so. However, I can understand why they might. They were afraid to admit that, in one regard, there’s a similarity between them and the subject of the movie. If Hitler is a human being, that means we are also capable of becoming like him. If there could be one, then there could be more, and that’s a terrifying thought.
To willingly try to ignore or want to change the reality of history is to allow evil to grow again. Doing so will only result in the creation and spread of new evil. Instead, we should strive to study the past, learn from it, and use what we discover as a tool to help make us better people.
Indeed, a better global community of genuinely good people.
We should not endeavor to paint over the past, no matter how terrible and painful that past may be.
Those film criticisms got it wrong. Hitler was not some monster from a mythological story. He was a monster of a real human being.