German Cinema and the Portrayal of Nazis
by Will Scott
The portrayal of the Nazi regime in cinema has been a sensitive issue around the globe ever since the conclusion of World War II. In the national cinemas of many of the countries that fought on the allied side in the war, such as the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, Nazi soldiers are often portrayed as cold, heartless monsters. This is sometimes taken to an even greater extreme with Nazi leaders, although some comedy films show them as buffoonish as well.
German cinema, however, faces a unique dilemma in that a vast majority of Germans during World War II were loyal to the Nazi regime in some capacity. Therefore, German films often try to differentiate between the rulers and the ordinary citizens when their focus is the Third Reich. In many films, the lower-ranking soldiers are portrayed as loyal and patriotic to Germany and not the Nazis. The Nazi leadership is rarely mentioned in these films, and when it is, the characters often question or criticize it. In fact, German society as a whole, and by extension the German cinema, tends to look very favorably upon officers, such as Erwin Rommel, or other high-ranking officials who opposed the regime. This is particularly evident in the 1981 film Das Boot, a movie that had great international success. Hester Baer writes that “the soldiers…are portrayed as individuals, who are vested with personal responsibility to ensure their own survival and that of their compatriots, a mission that is again cut off from any larger ideological struggle” (29-30). Baer goes on to state that “the one soldier who does wear a uniform and who overtly performs Nazism is the first officer…[he] is taunted, even castigated for his devotion to the Nazi ideology by all the men on board, not least the captain” (30). Thus, the movie attempts to show a German people who are skeptical of their nation’s authoritarian state that plunged the country into its darkest days.
The 2004 film Der Untergang (Downfall) represents a departure from the cinematic norms of both the allied nations and Germany. Downfall portrays Hitler as neither a monster, nor a clown, nor an authoritarian ruler who is often doubted by those below him. Downfall shows Hitler as a human being.
Hitler’s humanity is largely demonstrated by his flaws that are seen in the movie. He overestimates his chances of success. He gets depressed and suicidal once he realizes the reality of the situation. He gets angry with people if he feels that they gave him misinformation. Most importantly, however, is the fact that Hitler believes what he is doing is right. This belief is what truly differentiates Hitler as seen in Downfall from the portrayal of Hitler in other films. In these other films, we see Hitler as what Hollywood or many other cinemas want us to see him as: a villain with malicious intent. More specifically, the villain, in this case Hitler, knows what they are doing is wrong but does it anyways. In Downfall, however, we see clearly that Hitler truly believes in the goodness of his actions. This is seen throughout the movie, but possibly the best example is when he is sitting on his bed, preparing to kill himself. He predicts that the downfall of the western democracies will be the Soviet Union, as it was for him, and he says that what he did “wasn’t all for Germany.” Herein we see that the film’s portrayal of Hitler indicates that he believed that he was selfless in his actions. In the video essay, the disjointed audio and video serve to represent the disjointed nature of the words and actions of many Nazis, especially Hitler. In one scene, Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge and his wife, Eva Braun discuss how at some moments, Hitler can seem so caring and thoughtful, but brutal and heartless at others. This is reflected among other prominent Nazis—notably Magda Goebbels, who was a loving mother to her children in front of all of Hitler’s staff, but poisoned them in secret after Hitler killed himself. The disconnect is reflected in the disconnect of the audio.
This more human portrayal of Hitler speaks volumes about his regime as a whole. In essence, Downfall suggests that the human flaws of Hitler show that the Third Reich was a human tragedy. The Nazis’ rise to power, the war, and all the terrible genocides were a result of individuals blindly following orders because they believed what they were doing was right. This sharp contrast between Downfall and other German films can be explained by the rebuilding process that Germany underwent after World War II. Many citizens had a hard time coming to terms with the defeat and the magnitude of the war crimes committed by Nazis. The only people convicted and punished for these crimes were the Nazi leaders, and so the natural reaction was to blame these leaders for the crimes of the entire Nazi party. In recent years, however, there has been a shift in Germany, as war criminals who were just “ordinary soldiers” are being tried and convicted for their actions. This has produced a conviction among the German people that what happened cannot be blamed solely on the leaders, but the also the civilians who enabled the Nazis to take power and to realize their plans.
This shift is present in German cinema today. Beginning with Downfall, German cinema has addressed the nation’s history more directly. One film that shows this is the 2015 release Er ist Wieder Da (Look Who’s Back), which also shows Hitler in a more human manner than past films, albeit in a comedic sense. This movie serves as a warning to not become complacent about the nation’s history, lest Hitler or the Nazis return. Downfall, however, remains the most well-known and influential example of a German movie with a more human portrayal of Hitler and is therefore a vital piece of German cinema.
- Baer, Hester. “Das Boot and the German Cinema of Neoliberalism1.” The German Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 1, 2012, pp. 18–39.
- Hirschbiegel, Oliver, director. Der Untergang (Downfall). Constantin Film, 2004.