Saturday, May 21, 2005

Star Wars and Downfall

Twenty-five years ago today, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back opened in cinemas nationwide. What a different world we lived in, in 1980!

Now the Star Wars saga is complete. Early Thursday morning, May 19, just a few minutes after midnight, I – along with thousands of other fans – saw Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.

By chance, less than 48 hours later, I saw another film, the Oscar-nominated Downfall (Der Untergang), which is playing this week at Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill Theatre.

This may seem like an odd pairing – sci-fi blockbuster and art-house historical feature – but there is a connection between these two films that I had not anticipated. Star Wars: Episode III shows how tyranny begins. Downfall, which follows the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler, shows how tyranny ends. In seeing both films, audiences know the ultimate outcome.

Already pundits are using the final chapter in the Star Wars saga to claim it for their point of view. Historical and political parallels are there, to be sure, but they tend to lie in the eye of the beholder. The most obvious comparisons are with Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire or with the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich. Such comparisons come short, of course. For instance, the Roman Senate did not have representatives from far-flung territories but only from Rome itself.

Others see more contemporary comparisons. Some see Chancellor Palpatine as a sort of George W. Bush, using foreign adventures to circumscribe dissent and destroy the Bill of Rights. Others might see a former seminary student (say, Joseph Stalin) turning evil and becoming a ruthless dictator. There is even one line by Palpatine that could have been in a recent speech by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, though the script was written long before the incident I have in mind (Yushchenko’s disfigurement by political enemies) occurred. There are Cold War comparisons and War on Terror comparisons. There are comparisons regarding domestic politics and comparisons regarding foreign policy.

The pivotal line in Revenge of the Sith is delivered by Senator Padmé Amidala, at a meeting of the galactic senate where dictatorial powers are handed to Palpatine by pliant legislators: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

I do not wish to dwell on the political import of Revenge of the Sith. Others are doing that so much better, including blogger Tim Hulsey and New York Times columnist John Tierney. One thing is clear: The second trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) is more about personal redemption than about politics. The first trilogy is about politics, no matter how you interpret the type of politics at issue.

Downfall tells a story that is familiar in all but the details. Based on two books -- Joachim Fest's Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich and Traudl Junge's memoir, Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary -- it shows the brutality of war in the destruction of Berlin by the Red Army’s crushing onslaught -- real people, civilians and soldiers both, suffer. It shows the Hitler we all recognize from newsreel footage, the madman foaming at the mouth. But it also shows Hitler’s softer side – in one early scene, he comforts his secretary by saying “When I dictate, sometimes I make mistakes.” (Whether that is a double entendre also in the original German, I do not know.)

In Downfall, we see the “true believer” in the person of Magda Goebbels, who murders her children rather than let them face the prospect of growing up in a world without National Socialism, and then commits suicide with her husband, Joseph. We see Eva Braun, trying to boost morale by calling for music and dance amidst the blasting sound of artillery explosions. And we see those who lived through the war as if protected by a womb, unaware of the events encircling them, the secretaries and cooks and nurses who served Hitler’s inner circle, primarily the film’s main character, Traudl Junge.

The irony of Downfall is that, while we know that Hitler’s demise means the end of Nazi tyranny, it is also the beginning of Soviet tyranny over East Germany and most of Central and Eastern Europe. The Red Army may be liberators in April 1945, but they are oppressors for the next 45 years. The Soviet Union thus becomes the only one of the aggressor states at the beginning of World War II that achieves its war aims, and then some.

Knowing what has transpired in the past sixty years, since the incidents portrayed in Downfall, makes me curious about what happens after Episode VI of the Star Wars story. What happens after the Return of the Jedi and the defeat of the evil empire? Can peace be maintained? Will prosperity and stability ensue? Will democracy and republican governance return? Or will one tyranny be supplanted by another, as happened in Eastern Europe?

Would George Lucas answer those questions, given the shift in theme from trilogy one to trilogy two? Would a third trilogy bring us back to the political issues of Episodes I-III?

Alas, given Lucas' protestations that he is finished with the series, it appears we will never know.

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