328. Approach (V)
There are two films that I watch despite myself, not that I enjoy either exactly. These are: Downfall (2004) and There Will Be Blood (2007). The former depicts the last days in Hitler’s bunker before his ultimate defeat and the latter follows the rise of an oil baron, from humble prospector to tycoon. Neither film can be described as enjoyable, and yet I find that I watch each film time and again. I suppose that the fundamental attraction in each film is catharsis; an emotional release achieved when we see certain emotions reflected back to us. The films do not constitute escape from reality, as with entertainment, but rather represent certain aspects of reality in particularly heightened detail.
Downfall has achieved a certain independent notability because, a few years ago, a scene where Hitler rants and raves for invisible armies on his map to come to his aid became a meme. Hitler was depicted in various states of agitation as he made comments on Manchester United’s latest team selections or on some trivial political issue of the day. The contrast between his monumental rage on the screen and the trivial issue described in the new subtitles was usually very funny. I think that the clip achieved traction precisely because anyone who has seen this film—a film without a shred of humour, being in German—will find that it is without remittance in its gravity. Usually, when confronted with such events, rather like the holocaust itself, people feel compelled to make jokes about the most horrific things so as to protect themselves from the horror.
Downfall perfectly recreates claustrophobia in the audience; not only is the action set in a bunker, but the bunker itself is located in a city soon to be encircled by the Russians—and to the West lie the Allies, so escape is quite impossible. The film conveys a sensation akin to a trap, rather similar to dreams where you are chased by an unseen pursuer but somehow can never speed up quite enough to escape; it is as if you walk in jelly. The film’s secondary achievement is that the audience comes to identify and sympathise with the Nazi leadership, though not in a homogenous way—since every character has slightly different emotions and motivations.
This is not to say this is a pro-Nazi or revisionist film; it does not depict Hitler and company as heroic individuals, rather the film’s achievement is to make us forget that these people constitute the most reviled individuals of recent centuries and allows us to see them and experience them in their human dimensions and dilemmas, and this is a true dramatic achievement. Notably, unlike a Hollywood production, there is no mention of the holocaust at all; and the film is totally amoral, it simply depicts with a relentless eye what it would be like to live though the collapse of a totalitarian state in war.
In this respect, it comes close to Schopenhauer’s ideal in art; the idea, an idea he shared with Burke, that sublime beauty can be found in horrific or grotesque events—especially in war, since war is akin to a great iceberg that falls from an Antarctic ice shelf or to the distant lightning in an Italian valley at twilight. There is beauty to be found in the representation of what exists, no moralism needs to be applied; hence we do not emerge from the film with a heroic view of Hitler, since he is depicted as a squalid and delusional drug addict—although, from necessity, we feel some empathy for him in his trap.
Ultimately, this makes the film more “moral” than overtly moralistic films—such as Spielberg’s sentimental and moralised melodramas about the Second World War—because you emerge with a real sense of the stale breath in the bunker, the constant smell of grease from the generators, the rations of old sausage—and the tang of blood from the acres upon acres of bunker-bound butchered German conscripts.