This is a thought which has needled me long enough, I believe it’s worth attempting to phrase coherently, and publicly.
A month or two ago, I watched Downfall. This film is about Hitler, and about the end of the Nazi regime as the Soviets invaded Berlin. As usual, before I chose to watch this movie I scrolled down to skim viewer comments and reviews—this was on Amazon, rather than the unfortunately review-less Netflix or similar services—and was struck that the discussion seemed to revolve around one question. Does Downfall humanize Hitler? No consensus emerged.
What has bothered me about this—bothered me enough to sit down and write—is that these commentators are debating the wrong question. The discussion I skimmed converged on two basic positions: “It doesn’t, and that’s good,” and “It does, and that’s bad.” I saw no one challenge the foundational premise of these arguments: “Humanizing Hitler is wrong.”
That premise is a moral error.
Downfall humanizes one of the most evil men of the Twentieth Century. And that’s good. The very first scene he’s in, Hitler is kind. Throughout the film, he’s intensely emotional. Sorrow, anger, hatred, fear, the lot of it. That’s good. But, importantly, Downfall does not shy away from his evil. The picture painted of Adolf Hitler in this film is not painted by an apologist. The film’s final scene—a clip interviewing the protagonist, the real woman the film centers on—emphasizes this. “How could I not have known?” she says. “We were willfully blind.”
There was real, true evil in Nazi Germany. But it was human evil. Adolf Hitler was not a demon. He was not “something else.” He was a man, born and raised by a mother and a father. He was a human. To deny this, to dehumanize the actors of the Holocaust, is to deny their moral agency. In a serious sense, it removes their responsibility. We must not deny their humanity.
Presenting villains in a human manner creates an important reminder of where that evil comes from. It also emphasizes that those around us who participate in evil are also, ultimately, human. They are the same as us. They deserve our pity.