Friday night I went to see Der Untergang in my local art cinema. The film which has been a surprise box office in most of continental Europe, did not attract huge crowds in Manchester this Friday evening, only a week after its British premiere, yet I think that it may be among the victorious parts of World War II that this film will make its greatest impression.
The film is long, finding a slow, grinding pace towards the inevitable doom. The final days of the Nazi elite is spent going from the impotent rage caused by failed ambitions, and manic delusions of eminent victory, slowly, surely descending into hopeless, uncompassionate selfdestruction. All orchestracted in such a filmically convincing fashion that I completely forgot myself and felt that total emptiness left behind by the shattered dreams weaved by, apparently, just one man.
The film does indeed put a human face upon these people, whom history has (rightfully) demonized beyond humanity. This is necessary for the point the film is making, and it makes it very well. Just like previous German war films such as Das Boot and Stalingrad, the film tells its story in a matter-of-factly, almost serene tone. Like that of someone who has accepted the past. And that is very powerful.
That is also why, I think that this film should make a greater impact among the Allies of WWII, the Americans, British and Russians who were victorious to such a degree that the German side of the story disappeared completely in the cold war that followed. I’m treading a thin line here, to avoid condoning the Nazi regime from its actions, whilst trying to point out how important those actions, whether we want to admit or not, has been for how the rest of the 20th century.
Two generations have passed since the war, and many people have fought to keep the memory of it alive. Not from some morbid wish to poke at the misery of defeat of an entire nation, but because it is only by understanding how such a fall from grace comes about, and how people survive it, that we can avoid repeating it in the future.
The German confrontation with their most feared ghost, shows that even today it is hard to accept the past, and there are many other cases where the past is long forgotten when it shouldn’t be. When will Russian filmmakers make films of Lenin, Stalin and the rise of the Soviet Bloc? When will American filmmakers make films of the nuclear bombings of Japan? When will the Allies of today stop following the foreign policies created by those Allies of old whose enemies long since have accepted their defeat.
Of the cold war, both the Americans as victors, and the Russians as the collapsed and defeated, both refuse to let past mistakes influence today’s policies. Although much has changed, only a small part of that has been accepted by the powers that be. Learning from the humble and serene teachings of the defeated may be the best way to gain that acceptance.
Isn’t it telling, in a way, that our hand gesture for peace is the old V â?? for victory?