Most people haven’t seen Downfall, one of the finest WWII dramas ever made, but they have seen the moment’s moment of truth. Or rather, they have seen a version of it. And not a version the makers of this fine film ever imagined or intended, either. But that’s alright. In fact, it’s ideal.
Downfall is a biographical depiction of the final days inside Hitler’s bunker as seen by his long-time secretary, a young woman named Traudl Junge. (Junge would later deeply regret how she idolized the man who would become the 20th century’s signature avatar of evil, but in Downfall, we see her disillusionment unfold before our own eyes.) It is 1945. The Red Army is driving into the heart of Berlin. And deep underground, in Hitler’s bunker, the Third Reich’s top brass all try unsuccessfully to convince their Fuhrer that the war is lost, and that he needs to either escape or negotiate surrender. Hitler, of course, takes none of this advice. Were he the kind of person who listened to reason, he wouldn’t have started WWII and the Holocaust. And so, he clings to increasingly deranged fantasies of a grand military counterattack that will somehow reverse the complete destruction of Germany itself. That is, until a pivotal scene in which his top generals tell Hitler in no uncertain terms that there will be no rescue, there is no more military, and that all hope is gone. What follows is an epic moment in which Hitler rants and raves against his generals, the German people, and whatever else he can think of for his dreams having crashed and burned as they have. In the end, he slumps back in his chair, resigned and defeated, at last accepting that the war is lost, and all that remains is how he and his few remaining followers will exit it. Some flee to surrender. Others remain steadfast in their duties as Hitler marries his longtime mistress, enjoys a final meal, and then commits suicide. After that, most follow their departed leader’s example while Junge herself tries to flee. She doesn’t get far before she is imprisoned and the war in Europe finally comes to an end.
That scene in which Hitler goes berserk is the high point of a movie that does an amazing job (thanks to Bruno Ganz’s sublime acting) of portraying Hitler in human terms. Not so we might sympathize with anything he said or did, but so we might better understand the monstrosity that lurks in the hearts of all people as well as the unique evils that Hitler himself represented. Seeing Hitler having one final breakdown is like watching the entire Third Reich admit that like any rapid dog, it should have been put down long ago.
And yet, this scene lives on mainly as a viral video in which internet pranksters keep the original dialogue but re-write the subtitles so that the scene isn’t about Hitler going on a tirade about his ultimate defeat, but a more mundane tantrum about something with laughably low stakes—the outcome of a recent sporting event, the ending of a popular TV show, the rollout difficulties of a video game…whatever. The “Hitler reacts” meme has spawned thousands of versions of itself and will remain one of the more enduring pieces of online humor for years, even if its initial wave of popularity has already entered internet history. The meme is hilarious because it depicts a guy on the farthest fringes of the human psyche going bonkers over the trivia in ordinary life that we shouldn’t get upset over, but do anyway. Ironically, this parody furthers the point of the original movie—that lurking underneath the Hitler’s monstrosity was a human who made it all possible. We see these “Hitler react” memes and laugh at the humanity in them in large part because Hitler himself forsook so much of it and deserves none of the sympathy he would demand from those around him, either in Downfall, or in the parodies it has inspired. It’s an absurdity so deep we have no choice but to laugh at it.
Interestingly, the director and writer of the movie have embraced these parodies, even if expressing some skepticism about them at first. After all, they didn’t go to the lengths they did to make a movie like Downfall so a bunch of internet knuckleheads make a joke out of it. And, there was the very real concern that using this scene to render Hitler somehow humorous—a comic challenge if ever there was one—might inspire hatemongers. But no; the parody of Downfall has thankfully done none of that. The same thing that renders Hitler sympathetic in these videos also renders him just plain pathetic. Which, in Downfall, is precisely what we see: a man who abandoned his own humanity so thoroughly that the thin, brittle skin of lingering hatred that remains cannot support even its own miniscule weight.
Downfall does not capture the totality of who Hitler was, what he represented, those who followed him, what they sought to achieve, and the damage they wrought. It is not meant to. It is a narrowly focused story in which the elemental truths of Hitler and those who followed him most ardently are brought to the surface: behind their proclamations of patriotism and superiority lurked depravity, weakness, fear, madness, cruelty and evil. At one point, all of these people had been as innocent as the children we see occupy the bunker but do not leave it alive. But one by one, each of those adults, from Hitler to Junge herself, made a series of choices that led them into that dark place. None of them were there by accident. All of them deserved their fates. If there is any tragedy to this story, it is that Hitler and his ilk destroyed so much before they made the only worthwhile decisions of their misbegotten lives: ending them.