I saw the new German film, Downfall, about the final days in Hitler’s bunker as the Red Army closes in. I find the controversy over whether it shows Hitler as too “human” or sympathetic, perplexing. Personally, I felt it was boring, precisely because of its focus on the “human” Hitler.

“Should a monster be portrayed as a human being?” asked a headline in Bild, the German tabloid. The answer to the question is no. But it leaves another question: How did this human come to be categorized as a monster? Hitler began his career as human, who impressed many, including Canada’s prime minister of the day. He was portrayed as a monster with the outbreak of war (standard demonization technique) and even more so with the revelations of genocide, death camps etc. This served to answer the painful question: How could humans do such things? by denying they were human. It worked but meant one could not learn from the experience, with a view to preventing it in the future.

A similar pattern happened with 9/11: They are evil monsters, end of discussion. What is to be done? Destroy them. Once the switch from human to monster has been made, a weird reversal occurs: Whoever portrays the monsters as human must then justify the choice.

The screenwriter of Downfall says Hitler was “a human being, not a psychopath.” As if psychopaths, like monsters, are not human. He adds, “He was charming.” Well, of course he was. You don’t get a nation to follow you by being loathsome. How many kids who were abused by relatives or teachers found them charming, and responded by trying to please them? Thus do monstrosities unfold daily. But not historical cataclysms à la the Third Reich. Nothing is explained by saying Hitler was a monster or that he was human.

The screenwriter goes on: “This is what makes the whole thing so dangerous, because there’s an animal in all of us. That’s the message of the movie.” Maybe you’re starting to get bored yourself. So there’s an animal in all of us. Does that say anything about what made Nazi Germany possible? The animal in all of us can emerge in numerous ways and the creation of Nazi Germany is not an obvious one. Its stunning historical reality remains totally unexplained. Hitler’s human/animal side is similar to the human side of anyone troubled and damaged who, in turn, is capable of doing damage. Humanly, he is just another shattered psyche. The only interesting question is: Why did this damaged, damaging person play the central part in a historical catastrophe? It’s his political role, not his familiar psychic profile, that is pertinent. For that you need political analysis, not humanization.

Now, moving from Hitler to George Bush and John Kerry: there was a lot of comment before last night’s debate, that John Kerry needed to get voters not just to agree with him but to like him. To humanize himself.

In general, I value the chance for voters to size up a candidate personally, something that is made possible by TV events like debates. (Tone of voice, tilt of the head, the sense someone can actually listen.) It is far too easy for platforms and promises to deceive. But the personal size up ought to be related to some sense of the values and policies on offer.

What’s being urged in the U.S. is more like likeability as a stand-alone criterion, which you’d never do, say, in evaluating an employer. Likeability should count way less than, oh, judgment or credibility. And it’s a kind of mediated likeability. Voters are told by the news shows whether they like Kerry which, at the moment, they don’t, and they are told why they don’t. It’s a pretty controlled version of having a gut reaction.

I once had an editor who would have sniffed, “This is you at your most Roman.” She meant the haughty notion that private inclinations ought to play no part in public discourse. But one effect of 9/11 was to restore the role of actual politics against the bizarre yet common belief, in the 1990s, that market economics would resolve all social problems. It would be a shame, as politics resumes its place in human affairs, to lose its content, in favour of mountains of “human” reactions.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.