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Joachim Fest • Writer

"To tell it like it was"


- He wrote the biography on wich The Downfall is based, by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, one of those films that's on people's lips even before they've been to the screening

Joachim Fest • Writer

The Downfall (Der Untergang), by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, is one of those films that’s on people’s lips even before they’ve been to the screening. What people think of a given film is certainly based on more than simple questions of taste but aesthetic limits can occasionally be breached: that happens whenever a film’s main character is someone like Hitler.Joachim Fest wrote the biography on which the film The Downfall is based. We had a few questions for him.

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What do you make of Wim Wenders’ publicly-voiced disapproval on the film’s release? Why doesn’t the film show Hitler’s death?
Anyone who has seen the film has liked it. I myself was most touched by the reaction of three female members of the audience from Hamburg who, after the screening, just sat there, speechless, for a long time. I actually disagree with Wim Wenders when he claims that the film covers no new ground. Let’s ask ourselves, instead, why historians have refrained for so long from telling us about such an important era. Our intention was to tell it like it was; that’s why we didn’t show his suicide, as no one can say for sure what happened and because every choice we made could have distanced us from the truth and from historical reality.

Does the figure that Hitler represents have universal value or was he just a man with the power to subjugate the masses?
The 20th Century has shown that man is not only capable of perpetrating evil, but of doing so of his own free will. Evildoing is not restricted to economic and political matters. The Bible demonstrates this with the story of Cain and Abel, and even if the Enlightenment revealed how wonderful human nature is, this side is rarely seen because Man is also an inherently evil creature. In this sense, Hitler epitomises the denial of the of Enlightenment philosophy.

Can the character of Hitler not be compared to the traditional heroes of Greek tragedy, as, for example, Brecht tried to show with his version of Antigone, just after the war?
There have been numerous allusions to Greek tragedy, and rightly so. I agree that Greek tragedy is quite a modern reference, that cannot be ignored by anyone wishing to tell a story with a very tangible dramatic edge. At the same time, from a purely historical point of view, there have been times when harsh reality conflicts with ancient civilisation. Hitler is a prime example of this: he is a character who, unlike the heroes of tragedy, never evolves. Between 1919 and his death, he doesn’t change one iota. There are no such characters in tragedy.

The film doesn’t just tell the story of the final days of the Führer, it also depicts other major figures of the Nazi regime and frequently shows the reactions of the people and their situation, taking the citizens of Berlin as an example. Is the emphasis here on collective responsibility?
It strikes me as highly unlikely that persons in the Führer’s entourage should have remained ignorant of the horrors of Nazism. One cannot be absolutely certain, but it is more than probable that the likes of Albert Speer knew. As for the people, the question here is more complex. You have to say that, paradoxically, the further away you are from events, the more obvious the reality is; you would also have to say that the Holocaust figures were so absurd that people could be forgiven for assuming that they were blatant inventions of Allied propaganda.

The film has been accused of playing down German guilt?
You could go on all day about these feelings of guilt, overdoing it, I’d say. I’m German and sick of hearing about it. I still hear people say that the Germans ought to feel guiltier about what happened under the Nazis. But even if I admit that Nazism was a German phenomenon, the question applies to the whole of Europe, as in 1933 and the years that followed, no one, for various reasons, was able to prevent this madness spreading. The lack of attention paid to questions of guilt – of which the German people are accused – is a smokescreen behind which European intellectuals conceal the responsibility of the other nations. It’s a reflection of a simplistic, reductive way of thinking.

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