Thursday, 30 August 2012

Downfall (2004): Inaccuracies.

 Before I begin, this isn't going to be some scathing review of what is otherwise a very entertaining movie. I hate to be the guy who ruins the magic of Star Wars by pointing out the impossibility of lightsaber technology, or telling everyone there could be no sound in a vacuum and therefore no Formula 1 race car sound coming from the TIE fighters as they fly through space. Nevertheless I'd like to point out two historical inaccuracies in the 2004 movie Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.
 If anyone is reading this (god forbid) and can point out some other flaws please do and I will update this post to include them (only if they are properly referenced!).

Goebbels' "Throats cut" remark. 

Around 50 minutes into the movie, Joseph Goebbels is informed that his personal recruits are being "mowed down" due to their substandard weaponry and poor training. Goebbels insists that what they lack in capability they make up for in zeal. Eventually, he becomes impatient and has an outburst about the culpability of the German people.


"I feel no sympathy. I repeat, I feel no sympathy! The German people chose their fate. That may surprise some people. Don't fool yourself. We didn't force the German people. They gave us the mandate. And now their little throats are being cut."

Not to nit-pick here, since Goebbels did express this kind of sentiment to one of his subordinates, but what he really said was was far more powerful.

'His comments represented a total attack on the old officer corps and 'Reaction'. He accused them of treason, treason which they had been committing for years…
   I objected to these ideas, this cheap excuse… 'Even if there may have been instances of treason, are they not more than compensated for by the loyalty, the self-sacrifice, the courage and the faith of the German people, who have shown more good will towards their government than any other nation has ever done.'
   My interjection had an unexpected effect. Dr Goebbels abandoned the topic of the alleged treason of the officer corps and turned, initially full of cynicism and then of anger, against the German people. He accused them of cowardice. He began his objections with the words: "What can I do with a nation whose men don't even fight any more when their women are being raped."
Then, he poured out justifications for his and Hitler's policies. It was no longer the old virtuoso performance of cold, calculating eloquence. It was an outburst in which for the first time ideas poured out with elemental force, which hitherto have been most carefully hidden, even denied.
   For then he suddenly announced: the German people had failed. In the east they were fleeing, in the west they were preventing the soldiers from fighting and receiving the enemy with white flags.
   His pale face became red with anger, his veins and his eyes bulged as he shouted that the German people deserved the fate that awaited them. And then, suddenly, calming down, he remarked cynically that the German people had after all chosen this fate themselves. In the referendum on Germany's quitting the League of Nations they chose in a free vote to reject a policy of subordination and in favour of a bold gamble. Well, the gamble hadn't come off. 
   I sprang up and wanted to interrupt him. I wanted to say that he himself and Hitler had never interpreted that referendum in terms of a choice between peace and an adventure. On the contrary, both had always insisted that they only wanted to use peaceful means in Germany's fight for existence.
   Dr Goebbels saw my gesture but didn't let me speak it. He too got up and continued to speak: 'Yes, that may surprise some people, including my colleagues. But have no illusions. I never compelled anybody to work for me, just as we didn't compel the German people. They themselves gave us the job to do. Why did you work with me? Now, you'll have your little throat cut.'
   Striding towards the door, he turned round once more and shouted: 'but the earth will shake when we leave the scene…' (1)

For reasons other than length, I can't understand why this was altered. My problem isn't merely the lack of historical accuracy, but also the fact that:"but the earth will shake when we leave the scene." would have added far more meaning to Goebbels' tantrum.

Albert Speer visits Magda Goebbels.

 Roughly an hour into the movie, Albert Speer is seen visiting Magda Goebbels alone in her room while she is sick. Just prior to this conversation, Speer also has a brief but sobering conversation with Trudl Junge about whether she plans to escape or stay and die with the Fuhrer. This conversation is not mentioned in Albert Speer's recollection, which is surprising since many other conversations with those surrounding Hitler (which seem far more trivial) are recalled by him. In fact, Trudl Junge/Humps is not mentioned in the entire book.  Speer's visit to Magda Goebbels is also completely different to his recollection.


Speer: Fever?
Frau Goebbels: Albert, my heart can't take it. 
Speer: Why don't you take the children and get out of here?
Frau Goebbels: But where to?
Speer: I once told you, I can send a barge to Schwanenwerder. It can be fixed up as a hideout until it's all over... Which won't be long.
Frau Goebbels: I've thought it through carefully. I won't let the children grow up in a world with no National Socialism. 
Speer: Think it over again, Magda. The children deserve a future.
Frau Goebbels: If the idea of National Socialism dies, there is no future.
Speer: (gets up to leave, then turns once more) I can't believe you really want this.
Frau Goebbels: Go...
(Speer leaves)

Albert Speer in his own words:

"An SS doctor informed me that Frau Goebbels was in bed, very weak and suffering from heart attacks. I sent word to her asking her to receive me. I would like to have talked to her alone, but Goebbels was already waiting in an anteroom and led me into the little chamber deep underground where she lay in a plain bed. She was pale and spoke only trivialities in a low voice, although I could sense that she was in deep agony over the irrevocably approaching hour when her children must die. Since Goebbels remained persistently at my side, our conversation was limited to the state of her health. Only as I was on the point of leaving did she hint at what she was really feeling: ''How happy I am that at least Harald [her son by her first marriage] is alive." I too felt confined and could scarcely find words - but what could anyone say in this situation? We said good-by in awkward silence. Her husband had not allowed us even a few minutes alone for our farewell." (2)

 A completely different picture from that depicted in the movie scene, in which Joseph Goebbels is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, sorry for spoiling everyone's fun! Next week I will be showing how Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Inglorious Basterds are also somewhat unreliable in an academic setting (sarcasm).

(1) (1998) Noakes. J, Pridham. G, Nazism 1919-1945, Volume Four: The German Home Front in World War II, doc. 1379. From "Hier spricht Hans Fritzsche. Nach Gespr√§chen, Briefen und Dokumenten" edited by Hildegard Springer,  (Stuttgart 1949), pp.28-9.
(2) (1995) Speer. A, Inside the Third Reich, Chapter 32: Annihilation, Phoenix, London, pp. 642-3


  1. Useful info re Goebbels "throats cut" remark. Thanks for including it.

  2. "For reasons other than length, I can't understand why this was altered."

    Your more accurate quote render Goebbels in a much more sympathetic light. The movie wanted to show him as a caricature villain. Instead of Goebbels wracked with guilt, you get a Goebbels who think it's all a joke and couldn't care less.

    This has been the standard formula in regards WW2 in every year since the war, so I'm surprised you're surprised by it :)

  3. I'm at a loss as to how the original quote puts him in a better light. Can you explain?

  4. The original quote is a man wracked with guilt. He knew this could happen and now it has. The fate of 70 million countrymen and he's one of the main men responsible. Murders, rape, destruction. Just terrible stuff on a terrible scale. Reportedly he wept like a child when he heard Dresden has been bombed. Imagine what he felt when it became clear that not only would the war definitely be lost, but the whole country would suffer terribly for a long time. Just imagine having to live with that. He tries to pawn off responsibility to the voters, to his officers, but it's obvious from his rant that this is a deeply troubled man.

    The quote as seen in the film only gives you the impression this is just a big joke to Goebbels. Like he is beyond crazy and not making any sense at all, laughing about throats being cut. I don't know if he was laughing in the original, but the context suggests not. I like my characters to be portrayed as humans, not as comic book villains.