|Growing up, my father, Tommy Bragg, was in the Air National Guard where he was fortunate to retire as a colonel.
One of the things that he studied (and still does) is the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.
During my 31 years, I have been lucky to enjoy some of the same subjects that he does.
In fact, he often took me to guard events, where I could revel in the sophistication of the U.S. military and learn about the fighting forces of other countries.
Before I moved to Florida to teach, we spent a week in Knoxville where I was not surprised to find him reading yet another book on the demise of socialism. We’re both a bit fascinated by the subject, and as a young child, he sat with me during one Christmas and gave me my first viewing of “Patton.”
Whereas “Patton” mostly focuses on the success of one military leader, I found one of my favorite war films in the form of a dramatic failure.
The film is called “Downfall” and is centered around the last days that Adolf Hitler and his staff in the massive Fuhrerbunker, the underground hub beneath Berlin where the top military brass of Nazi Germany, awaited their fate.
While the film is mainly about Hitler, it is told from the interesting perspective of Traudl Junge, his personal secretary from 1942 until 1945.
Junge was hired while the war was still winnable for the Nazis.
It begins with a dozen or so women being hurried into the Wolf’s Lair, a massive secret compound in Poland where much of the Nazi SS planned their side of the war.
You may remember the Wolf’s Lair from the largely forgettable Tom Cruise vehicle, “Valkyrie,” where the failed attempt on Hitler’s life took place.
Even though “Downfall” starts in 1942, the film quickly shifts to three years later to April 20, 1945, on Hitler’s birthday. Instead of a cake, he awakes to artillery being fired upon central Berlin.
Furious, he assembles his top staff and gives them a rambling and berating speech in which he demands to know why they have failed him.
In the film, Hitler is portrayed by German actor Bruno Ganz.
One of the interesting ways in which the film depicts the last days of one of the most hated figures in history is that it shows the leader for what he truly was in his last days.
When he’s not giving one of his hatred-fueled rants, he is shown as a quiet and gentle old man type of a figure who loves his dog and vegetarian meals.
It’s a bit jarring to see him in such a light. I’m not suggesting that he’s a lovable figure.
Not by far.
It just shows how he was caring to the people around him that took care of him.
Also, as scholars have recently shown, he was probably suffering from Parkinson’s disease, as well as syphilis.
It has also been revealed he was given daily injections of methamphetamines and pain medication to get him through the days.
In addition to showing Hitler, we get a human perspective of many other top Nazi officials. I think the most eye-opening characters in real life and in the film are Joseph Goebbels and Magda Goebbels.
Joseph Goebbels was Hitler’s chief propaganda minister and a relentless supporter of his boss. His wife, Magda, was an emphatic supporter of the National Socialists. When the war was at its end, the two moved their six young children into the Fuhrerbunker where they lived in bunk beds.
While Junge takes care of the children, the lives of Hitler, his new bride, Eva Braun, and the Goebbels are falling apart.
Hitler’s doctor has been given a number of cyanide capsules and he distributes them among his staff.
In one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever witnessed, Magda Goebbels gives her children sleeping medication then puts a cyanide capsule in their mouths. They die instantly.
Hitler, paranoid that the capsules might not work, gives his German shepherd Blondi a capsule to make sure they are really poison, then he and Braun take the capsules and shoot themselves.
Once their leader was gone, all of the remaining staff break out cigarettes.
Some cry, some drink, but most are unaffected and begin the task of escaping the bunker.
I hate to have given away so much of the film, but it is history and much of it is incredibly well documented.
What’s amazing about this film is that it brings the seminal moment of Hitler’s death into cinematic consciousness.
That and the fact that we don’t have to read more than 50 books about it like my Dad has done.