A syndicated interview
GERMAN director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, demonstrated his popular
touch through the top rated TV series, Komissar Rex.
He scored a critical and commercial success with his 2001 debut
film, The Experiment, followed by Mein Letzter Film in 2002.
Now Hirschbiegel tackles a truly epic subject, the story of
Adolf Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker as the Second
World War draws to an end.
Already an internationally acclaimed commercial success, and
multiple award winner, the film was a nominee in the Best Foreign
Language Film category at this year's Academy Awards.
Q. For a German filmmaker tackling a film on this subject
must have been a great responsibility, wasn’t it?
A. Actually I felt it much more while I was preparing
the film, as soon as you shoot the movie you can’t think
about that too much.
You deal with the responsibility in every set up you do, but you
can’t let yourself be carried away by that. It’s a
step-by-step process. But preparing it was really tough. And,
of course, it’s not a pleasant subject to deal with.
As a civilised human being, these are things you hate and detest.
Nevertheless, you have to dig deep down into it and that’s
Q. What was it that appealed to you about the subject?
A. No matter what subject I deal with I try to approach
it with humanity and I try to be as honest with the characters
I depict, and as honest with the audience as possible.
I don’t try to trick them, I don’t try to use speculative
elements just for the sake of getting to the audience. I try to
get to them through honest emotions, by creating an atmosphere
that drags them into the situation they are watching on screen.
Q. Your first film, The Experiment, seems to foreshadow
this one with its investigation of the worst excesses of human
nature, doesn’t it?
A. If you look at Shakespeare, evil is everywhere. As
sad as it is that seems to be the most powerful observation when
it comes to the history of mankind, so as a director you deal
The Experiment was me working as a psychologist, and if you look
at Abu Ghraib I don’t think I was that far off.
Downfall was me being a historian, trying to combine that with
my craft as a filmmaker to make it all believable, although, of
course, I had to stick closely to the facts.
Q. Bruno Ganz seems frighteningly authentic as Hitler
– was he an obvious choice for the role?
A. The funny thing is Bruno Ganz was always there, even
before we realised how similar he looked to Adolf Hitler. That
was something we came to realise after we took this black and
white photograph of Bruno, and drew the strange haircut and moustache
and wrinkles around his mouth on it.
It was shocking how similar he looked. It was even more shocking
to see him in the uniform with the make-up on. He was shocked
as well, but that helped convince him to do it. He was the only
one actor we had in mind.
Q. The taboo you have broken
in this film is in portraying Hitler as a human being, not a slavering
monster, isn’t it?
A. It seems to be, although I’ve never understood
that approach. Why would you create a myth around this man?
That’s the last thing he deserves. He’s the worst
mass murderer in the history of mankind, and the most monstrous
thing is that he is human, he deliberately did what he did and
knew exactly what he was doing.
The man was not insane, he had a clear plan and that meant murder
and destruction. That’s the way we had to deal with it,
so I never understood that point really.
Q. There is a discomfort when you realise that Hitler
might, in other circumstances, have turned out like any one of
us. Perhaps that’s why that taboo existed in the first place...
A. I understand that, but on the other side as Germans
we have a responsibility to deal with our own history. We will
always have a responsibility for what happened. Of course, I’m
not guilty, I was born after the war, but as a German I have to
deal with that responsibility.
And it will go on for hundreds and hundreds of years to come,
we can’t get away from it. So we have to start asking all
these questions and undergo this painful process of investigating
and examining the background to it. I think the film works as
an inducement to do just that.
Q. What was the experience of your own family during
A. My father was 15 when they drafted him in 1945 to
man anti-aircraft guns. He couldn’t care less about all
that, he was more interested in chasing girls.
With my mother it was a bit different. She was a member of the
Bund Deutscher Mädel, which was the Nazi youth organisation
for girls. She very much believed in this ideology, she believed
in Hitler as their hero. She enjoyed her time with all the other
girls, because they were sent out into the country. The way she
talked about it they were having a ball.
For her, it meant freedom. It came as a shock when the Americans
came and destroyed the portraits of Adolf Hitler, explaining how
bad this man was. As a matter of fact, her talking about that
time triggered my interest for it when I was about 12 or 13. I
started reading practically every book I could get my hands on.
Q. The bunker you recreated for the film seemed incredibly
claustrophobic. Was it?
A. Certain rooms were very unpleasant to be in, but others
were okay, that’s the amazing thing. They were all built
in a studio. And the set was constructed in a very solid way.
It was like a submarine, you had to walk in from certain ways,
and then you had to go through rooms to get to the rooms that
were on the other side. It felt pretty close to what it must have
been like then. And, of course, we were hot, because there were
ceilings we could not take out. I think that very much enhanced
the atmosphere and the performances.
Q. In a film of many remarkable scenes, the one in which
Magda Goebbels kills her own children is particularly harrowing,
A. I used that scene as a metaphor for the industrialised
way of killing people, one by one by one. As painful and long
as it is I felt that scene had to be in there because it stands
for the monstrosity of that crude concept. It was absolutely necessary.
Q. How do you direct a scene like that, especially with
your young actors?
A. If you work with children you have to be very honest.
You explain the situation, that this hardly ever happens that
parents kill their children, and to make sure that it does not
happen again we are re-staging the whole thing as a bad example.
Of course, then it had to be as believable as possible, and for
them it was a game. They went for it. For the adults, it was terrible.
I’m the father of two children, and Corinna [Harfouch, playing
Magda] has three children. It was terrible, because Corinna and
Uli [Matthes, playing Joseph Goebbels] and some others started
We had to make sure that the children did not realise this, we
got them out and calmed them down, and then did the scene. It
went on for hours and hours.
On one side, you were dealing with yourself being on the verge
of tears, dealing with your crying actors, and on the other you’re
being a clown for the kids. That’s very tough.