5 Great Films Portraying the Fall of 20th-century Empires and Dictatorships

This list deals with two Asian emperors who lost their empire in the course of their lives, the Chinese Emperor Puyi and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, and two totalitarian leaders Hitler and Stalin. The first lost his totalitarian empire before he died, while the second died of natural causes and his legacy was swiftly replaced, but the empire remained. As the title of this list shows, it does not deal just with emperors and dictators, but the entire political systems collapsing in front of their eyes. While the first four films deal with the individuals intimately connected with the political system, since they were autocrats, the fifth deals solely with the collapse of the regime and its consequences for the people.

One can read this list as a progression; we start with the individual, the Chinese Emperor Puyi who has no actual sovereign power, just the title, and his empire crumbled when he was just a child. Then, we shortly examine the Japanese Emperor Hirohito who was nominally a sovereign ruler, but the power was divided (at least during the Pacific War) with other politicians and military officals. The fall of his Empire occurred while he was still the emperor, yet he remained in power, at least symbolically. As the list progressess, we examine the fall of Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi movement with absolute power, and the crumbling of the totalitarian machine along with him.

Finally, we deal with Stalin, who wielded the absolute power as well, but when he died, the system remained in place, yet everything changed. In this case, we can observe the struggle for power which ensues after the death of a dictator. All of these four historical personas would, in the republican doctrine, be called tyrants, although it does not make much sense in Puyi’s case, since he had no actual power. In this list, we call them emperors and dictators, although for totalitarian leaders, the latter might not be the best word choice. Nevertheless, its common usage justifies the use of the title “dictator”, at least in this genre of writing.

1. The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)

Portrays the fall of the Chinese Emperor Puyi

Bertolucci’s epic biopic chronicles the life and ultimate fall of the last Chinese emperor Puyi. At the opening of the film we see Puyi imprisoned by the Chinese communists, and his act of cutting his wrists in the bathroom. The guard stops his suicide and soon we are acquainted with the coronation of the young Puyi and his life in the Forbidden city as a boy, now the emperor. Things soon get complicated as we realize that soon after his coronation, Puyi is no longer the actual emperor, the sovereign. China has become a Republic and he is only an emperor by name. The tragedy of Puyi, the last Chinese emperor, is that he was never a sovereign, a possessor of “absolute and perpetual power”, as sovereignty is defined by the French jurist Bodin.

It is arguable whether it makes sense to talk about Puyi’s “fall”, since he was never a sovereign, but I believe that it does. He was officially corronated as a Chinese emperor, and as the film progresses we witness his swift degradation to the position of a prisoner accused of war crimes, and finally a simple gardener, a peasant. While he resides in the Forbidden city, we may wonder how he still has his servants, the eunuchs and why the whole “show” didn’t come to its end when China became a Republic. For the moment, he remained untouched for political reasons, it may be presumed, but as we soon find out, his servants are still with him in order to gradually steal away his family’s fortune. He sees that this is a show, some kind of theatre, and expels the thieving eunuchs from his estate. After the Beijing coup, Puyi finally has to go into exile, to Tientsin where he lives as a decadent and a playboy.

Puyi’s tragedy was that he was a man with no country, since he was stripped of his power as emperor, which defined his identity and his place in the social hierarchy, in one word, the social world. He felt betrayed by his own country, the men in power who desecrated his ancestors’ graves, and socially annihilated, so he practically became a radical individualist. Being a puppet in his own palace, now he becomes the puppet of the Japanese, after they invade Manchuria, and turn it into their colony – Manchukuo. He does feel connection to his homeland, and in his naivete, he speaks before the Japanese proclaiming that Manchuria is equal to Japan, and that the two emperors – of Manchukuo and Japan – rule side by side.

This is of course a delusion, since Manchuria was invaded and conquered, and Puyi served to the Japanese only as a figure. As we watch the film, it becomes obvious that Puyi is a man with no political experience and does not understand not only the art of ruling, but the most basic laws of politics. The tragedy of his fall was not the result of his mistakes as a ruler (he was never one to begin with), or because he was defeated in war or assassinated, but simply because he accepted his role as a puppet. Puyi’s fall seems preordained by fate, as in a tragic play, it happened when he was only a few years old. His moral and political fall was the result of his acceptance to comply to be a part of political designs of others.

2. The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005)

Portrays the fall of Hirohito and the Empire of Japan

Sokurov’s The Sun follows the period shortly before the Japanese surrender in the Pacific War (The Great Asian War, as they call it) and its aftermath. We are witnessing the fall of an emperor in terms of the abandonment of his divine status and the defeat of his nation, ultimately capitulation. Sokurov once said that he does not make films about dictators, but human beings, and we can see the humanization of Hirohito, as he copes with the imminent defeat and subsequent humiliation of himself and his nation. This humanization has an interesting aspect which is revealed in the beginning, when he says to his chamberlain that his body is no different than that of his subjects, in other words, he is just a human being. This statement shocks the chamberlain and the ministers, and we can see that this is a preparation for what is to come.

Hirohito, the Sun #2

The film, although this is not its prime concern, reveals some facts about Hirohito’s involvement in the war, and how his sovereignty was actually manifested in the decision-making process. When he meets Douglas MacArthur, he says that his prime minister did not understand finances, so he had to listen to the military for advice. He also states that he did not order the attack on Pearl Harbour, it was in fact carefully devised by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Some revisionist portraits, which emerged after his death in 1989 argue that he was not merely a pawn and an advocator for peace. Herbert P. Bix writes: “From the very outset Hirohito was a dynamic emperor, but paradoxically also one who projected the defensive image of a passive monarch. While the rest of the world disassociated him from any meaningful personal role in the decision-making process and insisted on seeing him as an impotent figurehead lacking notable intellectual endowments, he was actually smarter and shrewder than most people gave him credit for, and more energetic too.”

Hirohito meets with the Ministry of the Army, and we can see that the way he speaks is not similar to the speech of an ordinary human being. He quotes his grandfather’s, Emperor Meiji’s poetry and concludes: “We must continue fighting for our survival. The peace that is on favourable terms for my people is the only peace. Let the sea continue to rage.” As the film progresses, we see Hirohito’s dreams, masterfully shot by Sokurov himself (he was also the film’s cinematographer) and flying fishes which look like bombers bringing chaos, fire and death to his nation, surrounded by clouds and darkness which resemble the images of a half-blind man sees. Hirohito has statuettes of Napoleon, Darwin and Lincoln on his desk, and puts the statuette of Napoleon in the drawer, signalling the defeat. When Hirohito meets Douglas MacArthur, he is wearing a Western robe, and speaks English. He is reminded that this is a sign of humiliation since diplomacy requires one to speak in his native language.

MacArthur calls Hirohito a child, after the emperor leaves, and sends him milk chocolates. It is a gesture of humiliation and offense, but Hirohito does not understand it this way. He poses for photographs in front of American soldiers, which are to be published, performing gestures like Charlie Chaplin. When, finally, the capitulation is signed, and Hirohito renounces his divine status over the radio, the man who made the recording committed seppuku. We can observe the fall of a fragile man who loses his (divine) identity, and the status of the Emperor with sovereign power. Although he remains the emperor, symbolizing the unity of the Japanese people, his fall coincides with the capitulation of his nation. Sokurov’s brilliance was in showing us the human being behind an emperor with divine status, and bringing us closer to understanding the dynamics of power and sovereignty.

3. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

Portrays the fall of Adolf Hitler and his totalitarian empire

Film critic Derek Elley of Variety wrote the following about Der Untergang: “Not so much a Hitler movie as a portrait of a totalitarian machine’s spiritual and emotional collapse, Downfall is cumulatively powerful Gotterdammerung centred on the last 10 days of the bunkered Führer and those around him.” I believe this to be true. The film does portray the collapse of an entire regime, and Adolf Hitler, a leader intimately connected to its fate along with it. It portrays a variety of officials, Himmler, Goebbels etc., to name a few and many others who were crucial for the regime to operate. Nevertheless, it is a movie focused on the fall of a totalitarian leader, Hitler, as he loses contact with reality as Berlin is invaded by the Russians.

Hitler, Downfall

We can observe him being at the verge of sanity, as he commands non-existent armies to inflict a decisive blow to the Russians, the armies defeated, and few in numbers. The film shows us Hitler’s caring side, and his monstrous side as they coexist while he interacts with his lover, secretary and his associates. It portrays the fall, which cannot be understood ethically, since Hitler abandoned both Christian and civic morality from the start – but the fall into a delusion of maintaining an empire which is crumbling more and more as each hour passes, and the Russians invade the streets of Berlin. The major part of the film is structured as a delusion of a tyrant, and the devotion of his followers to his conviction. The generals are the ones who understand that all is over, from the beginning, and it is their judgment that Hitler most vehemently opposes.

The shots in Hitler’s bunker are powerfully juxtaposed to the fighting in the streets, which involves children who destroy tanks for the Führer, having faith in the final victory, and the women as well. It seems that the only ones who are confident in the final victory are the children who fight and Hitler himself. Hannah Arendt writes that Hitler finally understood that National Socialism is defeated when Himmler, the leader of the SS, broke his allegiance. Hitler believed that if the movement embodied in the SS is in motion, anything is possible, but when Himmler decided to bargain with the Allies, he finally understood that everything was over. This is the moment when Hitler decides to commit suicide, since the empire has crumbled.

Until the last moments, he has conviction in brutal Darwinism, which is a combination of vulgarized Nietzsche and a racist doctrine. As we observe the scenes in the bunker, and the behaviour of Hitler’s associates, we can see that Nazism was a political regime in which scoundrels, canaille, rose to the top, and Hirschbiegel illustrates this in drunken parties which occur while the bombings take place in Berlin. The complete lack of any ethical standards of this canaille and their delusions about “soldier’s honour” is most vividly shown when soldiers in the streets execute two old men as traitors because they were trying to escape. As Elley observes, this film ambitiously shows the emotional and spiritual fall of a whole regime, the military, the SS and its Führer as a supreme commander.

4.The Death of Stalin (Armando Ianucci, 2017)

Portrays the end of Stalin’s dictatorship and its aftermath

The first 40 minutes of The Death of Stalin show us the last days of Stalin’s era, the mass killings are ordered by Stalin, and the chief of NKVD, Beria, compliantly, and with pleasure, carries them out. It seems that in his satire, Ianucci wants to expose the leaders of the Soviet totalitarian empire as power-hungry, sadistic scum, in the similar way as the leaders of Hitler’s Nazi party are portrayed in Der Untergang. The comic, satirical element is present from the start; we see the director of Radio Moscow repeating the whole concert (they are playing Mozart, a rather cheerful music when the circumstances are taken into account, but we can presume that this was the part of Ianucci’s design) so they can record it for Stalin. The members of the comittee, presided by Stalin make jokes (mostly black comedy) about the former associates and later write down everything they said, taking Stalin’s reactions into account, so they can say things which are in line with Stalin’s will. It was reported that during Stalin’s rule, the common people had to write like Stalin, and this changed according to modifications in Stalin’s own style – this could happen overnight.

Ianucci’s satire is based mostly on exaggeration of historical events, the facts about the state of affairs in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and after his death. Alongside the recording of the concert, the beautiful pianist whose family was killed by Stalin sends him a note with a death wish. She wrote: “Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, you have betrayed our nation and its people. I pray for your end and ask the Lord to forgive you. Tyrant.” In a comic twist of fate, as Stalin laughs, he suffers a stroke, he is severely incapacitated and soon he dies. Stalin was a dictator who died of natural causes, unlike Hitler and Mussolini. His death was not orchestrated by the opposition which existed in the empire built by Lenin and himself. The Death of Stalin summarizes the power struggle which occurred after Stalin’s death, mostly between Nikita Khrushchev, who became the first secretary of the Soviet Union as a result, and Lavrentiy Beria. This summary is portrayed in a lively, almost exuberantly comic fashion, and we can observe Stalin’s first successor Malenkov and his spineless unimportance (this is higlighted in the film by the fact that he wears a corset), and other members of the Comittee who are mostly Stalinist hard-liners.

A turning point of this power struggle is reached when Khrushchev orders the trains which were halted to enter Moscow, and this results in 1,500 civilian deaths; the murders were committed by Beria’s forces. The film portrays the insignificance of common people in this power struggle which looks like a court intrigue in which lives are at stake; Khruschev and the Committe decide to stop the executions and begin with liberalization simply to gain the people’s support. Ianucci depicts this detachment from the considerations about the people, with the shots which show us their deaths at the hands of the NKVD, and the shots of the magnificent royal architecture of Kremlin, juxtaposed to them. We witness Beria’s downfall, the trial which occurs in the matter of minutes and his execution, after Khrushcev allies himself with the military, the war hero Marshal Zhukov. Stalin would be pleased, as the protagonists of this story say, and we can see that in totalitarian systems when the successor is not appointed by the ruler, the next one can secure his position only with the careful assessment of the situation, and its exploitation to his own advantage.

5. Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)

Portrays the Fall of the German Democratic Republic and its aftermath

It is 1991 in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Alex’s mother Christiane has fallen into a coma after a heart attack, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We observe the people’s reactions to the fall of the Wall, and the profound social changes which occurred as a result of the fall of the totalitarian communist regimes. Christiane became a devoted communist after she decided not to join her husband, a doctor, in the West; it would have been hardly possible for her to do so even if she decided to do it.” wakes up from a coma a few months after the unification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and her son decides not to tell her of the change of the regime and keep her in the belief that the German Democratic Republic still exists.

Alex tries to find food in the stores one could find in the GDR with no success (later he finds it in an abandoned apartment) and he even films the “news” with his friend who is an aspiring director, which show the state of affairs in a now fictionalized state. For her birthday, he convinces her friends and his family to stage an act as if the GDR still exists. This is a story about the unconditional love of a son toward his mother, but also about the impossibility of accepting the sudden change of the regime which occurred, and the rapid social changes. His mother’s understanding of reality, which is constantly recreated as if nothing has happened, mirrors Alex’s own impossibility to accept that everything has changed, and the same applies to many older people who have a hard time adapting; we see one older man who had a job, but is now unemployed and roams the streets. When Alex tries to change the money from the old regime into the new currency he cannot do so because the deadline for the change expired 2 days earlier. This symbolically conveys that he is a little bit late to accept the truth about the world he lives in now.

Alex’s mother sees a Coca Cola banner on a building, and Alex goes so far in his act, that he films the news with his friend which tell that Coca Cola was in fact a product of the GDR which was stolen by the West. When his mother leaves the apartment and in an emblematic scene, sees Lenin’s statue carried away with a helicopter, and the people from the former West Germany as well, Alex tells her that many people have finally understood the advantages of socialism and are fleeing the capitalist states and coming to the GDR as refugees. This is a satirical aspect of the film, but one cannot escape a sense of profound nostalgia. The career-oriented, materialist outlook on the world does not work for everyone, the film tries to say, and those people had a hard time accommodating to it, taking into account that they lived in a socialist country for the greater part of their lives. This is a story of transformation, the fall of the communist empire, and a satirical take on the hard times some people had to endure during this transformation.

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