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1 October

Nazi leaders sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials, 1946

On the afternoon of this day in 1946, the individual sentences were read out at the conclusion of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. The defendants were all political and military leaders of the Third Reich, and were charged with a) crimes against peace, b) planning and waging wars of aggression, c) war crimes and d) crimes against humanity. Several notable Nazis were not present – Adolf Hitler, Martin Boorman, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. Three were already known to be dead; it was assumed Boorman was still alive. He was tried in his absence, was found guilty and sentenced to death. (In fact he was dead; his remains were found in 1972). Others who received the death penalty included Hermann Göring, Alfred Jodl, Joachim Ribbentrop and Julius Streicher. Other notables such as Rudolf Hess, Karl Dönitz and Albert Speer received prison sentences. Yet others (Hans Fritzsche, Franz Von Papen and Hjalmar Schacht) were acquitted. Though there had been war trials at the end of the First World War, the Nuremberg trials marked the first time that international powers presumed to act as the arbiter of justice. Great pains were taken that there shouldn’t be any accusation that this was a show trial – the defendants were all offered lawyers, were supplied with translators, and the trials took place with all the traditional outward trappings of justice. It is a process that has been repeated on signicant occasions since, most notably after the Balkan wars and the genocide in Rwanda.

Downfall (2004, dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel)

Downfall is based on the reminiscences of Hitler’s secretary, a young woman with the lovely name of Traudl Junge, who we actually glimpse for real as an old woman at the end of the film, all “who me?” wide eyes and “we didn’t know” rationale. It’s an appropriate appearance because at least 50 per cent of Downfall is about the German people’s complicity in the crimes of their government and how much guilt they should carry for them. The rest of it is about the last days of Hitler, down in the bunker as the Soviets approach, the whump whump of incoming ordnance terrifying loud and effective (this is definitely a film for the sub-woofer). It’s Youtube-famous for all the frothing that the brilliant Bruno Ganz does as the Führer, spittingly furious about everything and promoting reluctant generals to mastermind the final defence of Berlin while everything comes crashing down and the sensible are edging towards the emergency exit. Everyone in this aberrant-looking gang knows the game is up, but how do you tell a man this angry? Angry, but not insane. One of the many brilliant things that director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s breakthrough film does, which sets it apart from so many other war films, is to present the Nazi idea as the Nazis saw it – a positive plan for a sunny future, once the nasty problem of the Jews (and everyone else who stands in its way) has been taken care of. It sells Nazism as a positive, as it must have been sold to the German populace and everyone who could be loosely termed its power base. So Hitler is not portrayed as a madman, nor are his henchmen. In fact the scene where Mr and Mrs Goebbels set about the final solution for their own children, rather than live in a world without National Socialism, is touching, heartbreaking even. In the figure of Mrs Goebbels (a tough role for Corinna Harfouch) we have a normal woman led up an awful avenue by an off-kilter belief system. The film is full of such human touches – an attempt to have a drinks party while the ceilings shake, Hitler getting married to Eva Braun and being asked by the registrar, as part of the formal procedure, whether he has any Jewish blood. Normal people gone wrong, now rats in corner, led there by their own actions and decisions. The effect is quietly devastating.

Why Watch?

  • The first German film about Hitler for 50 years
  • Bruno Ganz, a formidable performance that’s once-seen, never-forgotten
  • One of the most thoughtful films about German responsibility for Nazi atrocities
  • Because it’s better than The Sea Inside – which beat it to Best Foreign Language Oscar

Downfall – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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