Downfall (Der untergang)
Director : Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay : Bernd Eichinger (based on the books Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest and Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Corinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Ulrich Matthes (Joseph Goebbels), Juliane Köhler (Eva Braun), Heino Ferch (Albert Speer), Christian Berkel (Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck), Matthias Habich (Prof. Dr. Werner Haase), Thomas Kretschmann (Hermann Fegelein), Michael Mendl (Helmuth Weidling), André Hennicke (Wilhelm Mohnke), Ulrich Noethen (Heinrich Himmler), Birgit Minichmayr (Gerda Christian), Rolf Kanies (Hans Krebs), Justus von Dohnanyi (Wilhelm Burgdorf), Dieter Mann (Wilhelm Keitel)
In the annals of modern history, there has been no madness quite like the madness of the Nazi Party, which reached its apocalyptic kindling point in the sprawling underground bunker beneath the German Chancellery where Adolf Hitler and his inner circle spent their last days at the end of World War II. By that time, Nazi madness had done the extent of its damage, causing a war that destroyed much of Europe and cost 50 million lives, 6 million of which were taken in concentration camps. By April of 1945, with the Soviet Red Army marching into Berlin and the German army defeated and scattered, all that madness had left to do was turn on itself.
This is the subject of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s harrowing Downfall (Der untergang), which is the first mainstream German-produced film to tackle the subject of Hitler in more than half a century. Downfall tells in stark, brutal terms the story of the end, how the leaders of the Nazi regime holed up together underground and, while bombs rained overhead, persisted in delusions of grandeur that somehow their dreams of world conquest and Aryan supremacy were still alive. Alternating between utter despair and suddenly rejuvenated optimism, the Nazis are grasping for anything, but their death rattles are palpable. Downfall is an extended portrait of the slow death of people, ideology, and a nation. It’s a story that’s been played out on film before, but in productions that are rarely screened, such as G.W. Pabst’s obscure The Last Ten Days (1955), Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), starring Alec Guinness, and the TV movie The Bunker (1981), starring Anthony Hopkins.
At the center of it all is Hitler, played with remarkable acuity and intense emotion by Bruno Ganz (best known for starring in several of Wim Wenders’ films, including The American Friend and Wings of Desire). Ganz embodies Hitler as a continually evolving paradox. At one moment he is calm and collected, the portrait of a taciturn leader who refuses to yield. The next moment, he is stooped and bitter, if not downright sad (Ganz effectively makes his five-foot-ten-inch frame look shockingly small). At other times, he throws tantrums like a spoiled child who blames everyone but himself. And, finally, he is just defeated, resigned to this fact as only a meglomaniacal egoist of Hitler’s stature could be. Even as the world around him crumbles and his own people are being slaughtered at his request because they failed him, all Hitler can think of is the fate of his own soulless body.
To give the film more scope, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Experiment) and screenwriter Bernd Eichinger cut back and forth between the events taking place in Hitler’s bunker and the war raging in the streets of Berlin above. This necessitates a large number of major speaking roles, as the filmmakers endeavor to make Downfall not just the portrait of Hitler’s collapse, but the entire country’s.
In some respects, they may have bitten off more than they could chew, as one could imagine the film as a particularly taut tale told only from the claustrophobic view underground. However, Hirschbiegel shows how the bloodshed in the streets and the madness in the bunker are essentially one in the same: As Germany gave itself over to Hitler’s vision, it goes down with him.
Much of the story is told from the point of view of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s stenographer for the last two and a half years of the war (Junge was the subject of the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, and she appears in a brief interview at the end of the film to deliver a final message that youth and idealism are no excuse for allowing Nazism to do what it did). Junge, only 22 years old when she began working for Hitler, is a bright-eyed ingénue, and she comes to stand for the entirety of Germany itself in her genuine, but persistently misguided faith in the Fuhrer. Like Germany, she allows herself to believe in Hitler even when the worst is evident; she can’t shake the hope. Yet, death is everywhere, which is suggested visually by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann’s use of bruised colors -- primarily hues of gray and green, although the sickly blue walls of the underground bunker simultaneously suggest the industrial drabness of an old hospital and the dead pallor of zombie skin in Dawn of the Dead (1978).
Of course, in telling this story from such an intensely human point of view, the filmmakers have to find a way to balance the obvious evils of what Nazism stood for and the humanness of its characters. Some might find that the film humanizes the Nazis a bit too much, but to make such an argument requires a belief that humanity can be extinguished completely by evil deeds. Rather, the filmmakers take the position that even the worst monsters have human faces.
Downfall refuses to take the easy route and demonize its historical characters, even the Fuhrer himself, who frequently comes across as more pathetic than anything, even as he is spitting vitriolic bile about the Jews and articulating his lack of compassion for the deaths of German civilians. The power of Ganz’s performance is the way in which he which he conveys Hitler’s many and often contradictory faces, turning in an instant from stooped old man to raging demagogue. Thus, Hitler may be shown as a human being rather than a demon, but that doesn’t make him any more appealing. The closest the film comes to a truly one-note depiction is Jospeh Goebbles (Ulrich Matthes), Hitler’s gaunt minister of propaganda whose relentless defending of Hitler’s most insane decisions marks him as both insane himself and a patsy. His icy wife
Bleak as the film is, Hirschbiegel manages to inject some darkly effective humor into Downfall, some of which is intentional and some of which naturally emerges from the surreal nature of the situation. Hitler’s increasingly inane decisions have a certain comical value to them, and it is hard not to laugh, if only in emotional self-defense, as the camera tracks through one of the bunker’s hallways past scores of Nazi and SS officers blithely discussing the best method of suicide. In its own way, the whole thing is a farce.
What Hirschbiegel seems to understand best is that madness defies all boundaries, those between good and evil, right and wrong, serious and comedic. Even if it is a bit overlong and has a few dull patches here and there, Downfall is absolutely brilliant in depicting with sharp historical accuracy how a destructive system will eventually turn on itself. Madness begets only more madness, although Hirschbiegel allows the film to end on a seemingly hopeful note, with a quaint, pastoral image of escape into a better future.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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