a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

; the movies

The I Don't Speak German podcast recently released an episode where they talk about Downfall, the 2004 film about the last days of Hitler and his followers in the bunker at the end of World War 2. If you haven't seen it, you probably know it best from the youtube meme about Hitler throwing a tantrum with subtitles added to make it look like he's talking about anime or video games. I never felt an urgent need to watch the movie, I've probably consumed enough media about nazis for several lifetimes, but they made it sound like something I'd want to watch. So I did. It has some problems, but overall it was very good.

Wanting to watch a movie these days is a roll of the dice, usually D%, because I don't have any of the big streaming services, and even during the occasions of my life that I did subscribe to a big streaming service, it never had any movies I wanted to watch. I remember when Netflix invented streaming, and how exciting it was when they were first filling out their catalog. Imagine, getting rid of cable, getting rid of rentals, no longer needing to get DVDs in the mail that probably won't work, having a website with a reasonable monthly fee where I could go to watch whatever movie I wanted whenever the whim struck me. Sure, I wouldn't be able to watch new movies that were still or recently in theaters, but that's okay. I usually want to watch old stuff anyway.

Well, that dream fell apart pretty dang quick. Other streaming services started popping up, Netflix decided they wanted to also be in the business of making movies instead of just distributing them, and all the movie studios decided they wanted to also be in the business of distributing movies instead of just making them, and now if you want a chance of being able to watch a specific movie, you have to either subscribe to all of them, or just hope that what you want to watch happens to be on the one you have (spoiler: it isn't.)

Going back to torrenting worked for awhile, but HBO started being copyright narcs, and other corps followed suit, and now I don't know what's safe to torrent and what might make my ISP yell at me. I could use a VPN, but I'm not going to pay for file conjuration, that defeats the whole point. I've occasionally had luck with unofficial streaming sites, but the game of whack-a-mole you have to play to find sites that stay online and aren't bait-and-switches is exhausting, so the result of all of this capitalism is that I've pretty much stopped watching movies. It's sad, but that's the state of things.

There is one lifeline, though, and that's the library. Kanopy and Hoopla let you sign up any participating library, which is probably most of them (in the US, I don't know if this is a thing outside the country or if there's an international equivalent, sorry) and watch up to 10 movies a month on each site. There's no way in hell I'm going to watch 20 movies in a single month, so it's effectively unlimited access to whatever they have. I thought to check to see if they have Downfall, and guess what? They do!

I have a much better track record of finding things I want to watch on Kanopy than any of the commercial streaming sites, which is a low bar, because my track record on those sites was somewhere between 0 and 1%. But I'm glad it exists, and I need to start remembering to check it more often.

stories are complicated

Anyway, Downfall was good. If you decide to watch it, all of the content warnings you expect apply (except for sexual violence—this movie was actually pretty good to the women in the story. I think it even passes the Bechdel test!)

English historian Ian Kershaw, who wrote the book on Hitler, praised the film and suggested it's as historically accurate as possible. Jack Graham, who read the book on Hitler, said in the podcast that this is broadly accurate, but a lot of the history is skewed and context is crushed for the sake of storytelling. I'll briefly talk about some of the problems.

First off, the big controversy when Downfall came out was criticism from people claiming the movie humanizes Hitler, and downplays the monstrousness of his beliefs. I think that's nonsense. Hitler should be humanized. All fascists should. If we realize that all of the people we think of as history's greatest monsters were squishy humans just like us, that makes them less powerful. If we don't see them as malevolent forces enacting their will on history, but human beings with the same weaknesses that we have, it makes it easier to stop them. It makes it easier to see Hitler-like qualities in the people around us, instead of dismissing their actions until they fall between the mythical goalposts of "evil"—goalposts that, if you don't want to accept that ordinary people are capable of "evil", are constantly moving. Humanizing Hitler and people like him isn't just good, it's necessary. The Banality of Evil ain't just a river in Hell.1

Hitler's beliefs aren't sugarcoated. You see him clearly express his contempt for everyone who isn't Hitler. He's also shown as a frail old man who was losing his grip on reality, because he was. You also see him being kind to women and children, and fond of animals, because he was. People contain multitudes. Someone can be a sweet, kindly grandpa to you while also being a murderous sociopath to people of a different race. It's absolutely critical that we stop one-dimensionalizing fascists if we want any hope of stopping them.

The other controversy around the movie is that it comes across as exonerative to any Nazis who weren't fully bought into the Hitler Cult. This is a much more reasonable criticism. One of the main point-of-view characters is Traudl Junge, a woman who started working as Hitler's private secretary at age 22 in 1942. The real Junge appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film, in interview segments that were filmed before her death in 2002. She's portrayed as being young and naïve, unaware of the true reality of Hitler's atrocities. The story makes it seem like she wasn't a hardcore nazi, that her parents warned her about getting involved with this Hitler fella, but gosh darn it, her curiosity just got the better of her.

This is bullshit; her father was 100% on board with the nazi project, so on board that he even helped with the beer hall putsch in 1923.2 Now, do I think Junge needed to be posthumously raked over the coals for massaging her history? No. Her personal mythologizing is something that needs to be discussed, but this movie doesn't need to be the place for that discussion. What you can't do, however, is uncritically present the idealized version of her story. You don't need to have a whole debate about it, but you have to tell the truth. This goes back to the "people contain multitudes" idea. You can be honest about her history without villainizing her. People are complicated.

It's possible they went this route because they wanted Junge's cooperation, or were worried about accusations of defamation, and I can understand that, but if you can't be honest about who Junge was, I think you need to use a completely fictionalized version of her. Different name, different details, different backstory, different person. I don't think telling lies about a real person for the sake of the story is an acceptable compromise.

They talk in the podcast about the difference between drama and nonfiction, and about how drama requires shortcuts. You can't possibly give all the necessary context in a 2-hour narrative version of the story. You have to leave stuff out. But when you completely gloss over Junge's complicated backstory, it muddies the bigger picture. It lets the civilian nazis who allowed this to happen off the hook. When you lionize the other main point-of-view character, a nazi doctor named Ernst Schenck, you're ignoring an important part of history. Sure, his actions may have been purely heroic in this story, and again, I'm not saying he needs to be rewritten as a villain because of his actions prior to the events of the film. I'm saying that Hitler wasn't a demon, he was human. Schenck wasn't an angel, he was a person. People have flaws and virtues. Shenck experimenting on people in concentration camps3 doesn't make his later actions less virtuous. Helping the people of Berlin in the last days of the war doesn't make him not a nazi. It's a reality he has to come to terms with. It shouldn't be written out of history.

Other than that, it's a heck of a film, and I'm glad I got a chance to watch it. Thanks, The Library!

subtitles are good

In the latest episode of Topic Lords, Jim briefly discusses the idea that sign language might be particularly well-suited for online learning, because you're forced to pay attention all of the way. You can't take your eyes off the screen, and your hands are engaged, so you can't look at your phone. He compares it to being out mowing the lawn, with earplugs in and heavy gloves on; all of your senses are engaged, so you can't succumb to the temptation to look at social media, get that dopamine hit.

I think part of me knew this, but thinking about this after watching Downfall, I'm now fully aware that I prefer movies and TV that aren't in English. When I watch a movie in English, there's nothing stopping me from picking up my phone or switching to another tab for a minute. I can continue getting the gist of the story through dialogue. Sometimes this is fine, some movies are cheap trash it's fine to throw on in the background, but at that point I have to question whether it's worth "watching" the movie at all. With Downfall, I'm glad it was in German and I had to watch it with subtitles. Not only did it make it feel more real, it forced me to keep my eyes on the screen, because the visuals are such an important part of it. The body language, the facial expressions, the set of the bunker, all of it told a much more complete story than it'd be possible to get through pure dialogue.

I know this is a personal failing, and I could force myself to pay attention to movies if I really wanted to. This is one of the reasons I lament the death of theaters. When I'm watching a movie in a theater, I'm primed to pay attention with 100% of my brain. The phone stays in my pocket. This is true even if I'm the only one in the theater; something about being fully immersed in the movie in a dark environment makes me want to forget my phone is there.

There are ways I could force myself to become a more disciplined home viewer. I could turn my phone off and put it in a drawer. I could unplug my keyboard and mouse so I'm not tempted to switch tabs. But because I don't watch many movies in general, I don't have much motivation to train my brain. If a movie can't hold my interest, I'm much more likely to want to stop watching it and do something else.

But there's another benefit to watching movies that aren't in English: I don't know how bad the performances are. Now, there's more to a good performance than just the line reads, but nothing is more likely to take me out of a movie than characters that don't sound like real people. This is why I mute spoken dialogue in 99% of games with English voice acting. This isn't the voice actors' fault, it's the format: video games are expected to be 15-40 hours long, and you can't write good spoken dialogue for something that long. They're not compatible ideas. You can't keep the illusion going that long.4

But if a game's dialogue isn't in English, if I hear people talking but absorb the information by reading text, it's an entirely different experience. The performances can't grate on me. I think the same's true of movies, too. I'm much more likely to appreciate a movie if I don't know how believable the dialogue sounds.

Also, if a movie's not in English, I'm usually not going to know who the actors are. Even if a performance is very good, it can still take me out of it if I'm aware of who the actor is. Even though I thought, for example, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in The Revenant was pretty good, there's always going to be a part of my brain that's like "That's not an old-timey prospector guy, that's Leonardo DiCaprio. Who are they trying to fool?"

I might look for more stuff on Kanopy to watch that's not in English. Heck, maybe I should start muting movies and listening to music instead. That'll help with another movie pet peeve, overreliance on hyper-dramatic scores to compensate for sub-par storytelling. I hate when movies blast incredibly tense string music because they don't trust the audience to know that a scene is tense. Hey film dorks, try writing more gooder 🦝


  1. Uh... because banal rhymes with canal? I don't know where I was going with this.

  2. Rising, David. Traudl Junge, 81 (washingtonpost.com, 2002)

  3. Cesarani, David. The Massaging of History (theguardian.com, 2005)

  4. I feel the same way about TV; I can't think of a serialized English-language shows I didn't get sick of halfway through the second season. Episodic shows are okay; they're a bunch of little stories, not one big story.

#personal #media