Monday, January 31, 2011

Bernd Eichinger, maker of 'Neverending Story' and 'Downfall,' RIP

It's a heck of an expansive moviemaking resumé: Bernd Eichinger, who just died at age 61, was a writer or producer on "The Neverending Story" the "Resident Evil" franchise and some of Wim Wenders' earliest movies. But the movie that probably touched the deepest chord with me was "Downfall," Eichinger's film about Hitler's last days, as the Soviet army closed in around him. The controversy around the movie is remembered in his obit today: 

“Downfall” (2004), which was written as well as produced by Mr. Eichinger (and was also nominated for an Oscar), tells the story of Hitler’s final days, portraying life with his close compatriots in his Berlin bunker.

Based partly on a memoir by one of Hitler’s secretaries and partly on historical texts, the film, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, portrayed Hitler in an almost neutral fashion. It depicted his paranoid rantings as Berlin was under assault by Russian artillery and the Germans faced certain defeat, but also featured moments of warmth and thoughtfulness. Many critics, especially inside Germany, felt that any attempt to humanize Hitler was ill advised.

“The lack of narrative position alone,” the filmmaker Wim Wenders wrote, escorts the audience “into a black hole in which they are led, almost unnoticeably, toward looking at this time through the eyes of the perpetrators, and generates a kind of benevolent understanding of them.”

Mr. Eichinger rejected such criticism, saying in a 2005 interview that the Nazi period was the “darkest” in German history and that it “traumatized not only the generation which was involved, but traumatized also my generation.” He added that to attack the film for showing that Hitler had human traits was unjust.

“There is no such thing as telling the truth and not taking everything into consideration,” he said. “Otherwise you are a Stalinist with one view of things. You burn what doesn’t fit your position or put it into the archives because you want to show only bad and good. When I wrote this script, for me the important thing was to show the gray.”

Watching "Downfall" didn't make me feel sympathy to Hitler, nor to any of the people in his cadre. But it did make me feel a small twinge of empathy for the people around him. Yes, these people committed themselves to a horrible and monstrous ideology — but they were people, after all. I took the depiction of them as a warning about how easy it is to commit oneself to misguided or even hideous dogmas, even with the best of intentions, and how difficult it can be to extract oneself from those visions even as they cause the world to crumble about you. Few people think of themselves as evil. Instead, they operate the gas ovens and the furnaces  and convince themselves that they may be doing difficult work, but they are doing it for a greater good. Eichinger's movie didn't make me want to be a Nazi; it made me see how easy it would be to be a Nazi, and provided a warning against slipping down that slope. It was cinematic art at its most thought-provoking and valuable. RIP.


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