I'm reading a recent book by British economist Niall Ferguson called The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. The title quite nicely summarizes the book. I'll merely add that if you've any inclination at all to read it, do so. Ferguson does an amazing job of covering the breadth of world conflict in the 1900's theorizing as to why it was so terribly violent a century.
I'm about half way through the tome. Yesterday I was reading a section on Adolf Hitler, who of course must figure prominently in such a book. Not for the first time I found myself wanting to go back in time and trying to reason with him (which always seems easier than in reality it would be). I also recalled Bruno Ganz's brilliant portrayal of Hitler in the German film, The Downfall (2004). The movie came under some criticism, particularly in Germany, at the time of its release for humanizing Hitler.
I couldn't disagree with those criticisms more. I think its a terrible mistake NOT to remember that Hitler, and other tyrannical leaders like Stalin were (or as the case may be, are) indeed living breathing human beings. To make monsters out of them is to play a children's game of pretend. If they are simply the bogeyman, ogres, Frankensteins we need not deal with a) how they sprung from among more reasoned humans or; b) how other people endorsed and abetted their efforts. It's not like Hitler could have done it all alone. Hitler had henchmen. Not just a small cadre in his inner circle either. There were a lot of people running concentration camps, there were a lot of people in the Gestapo and there were a lot of people who let the horrors of Nazi Germany take place. If Hitler is merely a monster, what of all those other horrid Nazis? Did Hitler cast a spell? We do ourselves no favor by mythologizing our real life villains.
The Downfall was a brilliant interpretation of not only Hitler the man, but some of those close to him. We see the likes of Goebbels who was culpable in Nazi atrocities and Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, a relative innocent whose recollections were the basis for the story. Neither is a monster, but to varying degrees both are guilty parties.
Ganz played Hitler like a flesh and blood person, not like a cartoon character. Today I saw Heath Ledger's amazing performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight which should earn him a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. Ledger was playing a character. Whatever else he did with the role (and trust me it was amazing) there was the make up and there was the context and we all know that no one like the Joker has ever walked our streets. But a Hitler has and likely will again appear. The real monsters in our world are the serial killers, mass murderers and tyrants. Serious films need to show them as people. In comic book movies you can do what you will as the villain.
One of the best film villains of all time was Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (2007) played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh was the personification of evil and somehow was at once all too human and seemingly super natural. This is part of what made Chigurh so terrifying, he could be interpreted as in many different was. As originally realized by author Cormac McCarthy in his novel upon which the film is faithfully based, Chigurh's origins (as with The Dark Knight's Joker) were unknown. With no back story offered and a name and appearance that could evoke various interpretations, audiences were left to ponder whence this embodiment of evil came and what he might represent. Chigurh only seemed super human although his actions and talents bordered on other worldly, he was clearly from among us. Hitler is a non fiction character with a documented back story and in a serious film needs to be seen as being from among the rest of us. That is precisely what makes him more chilling than the creature in Alien (1979).
On a not unrelated note, last night's Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, spent its first half hour focusing on the issue of U.S. condoned torture conducted these past few years. Talk about monstrous behavior! As we have learned from congressional testimony and investigative reporters like Moyers' guest Jane Mayer author of the just-released, The Dark Side: The Inside story of the US War on Terror and How it Turned into a War on American Ideals. The fact of torture having been green lighted at the highest levels of our government, along with extraordinary rendition, is undeniable. That people within our government can find justification for it is mind boggling. The US has stooped to the level of the type of countries that were once its sworn enemies. Much of this disgrace allegedly stems from Vice President Dick Cheney. It is often difficult to remember that he is human (I'll never forget his chilling response to an interviewer who pointed out that the vast majority of Americans opposed the continued US involvement in Iraq: "so," he replied contemptuously. Yeah, what do you think this is a democracy or something?). But Cheney came with Bush as dually elected leaders of the United States. They need to be remembered as people no matter how little regard they've shown for our constitution or ordinary (i.e. non rich) Americans. In our lampooning and demonizing of Bush, Cheney and company we on the left have found succor. But just as with the more extreme cases like Hitler, it is incumbent to remember that these odious characters come, if not from the hoi polloi, by them. Their dark shapes are molded from the same genetic structures as ours.
Do I really have the audacity to suggest that Bush/Cheney can be compared to Hitler? Yes and I'm going further and saying we all bear a resemblance to the worst of us, just as we all are part of and resemble the very best we have to offer.