Monday, August 08, 2005

Downfall / **** (R)

Adolf Hitler: Bruno Ganz
Traudl Junge: Alexandra Maria Lara
Magda Goebbels: Corina Harfouch
Eva Braun: Juliane Kohler
Albert Speer: Heino Ferch
Dr. Schenck: Christian Berkel
Werner Haase: Matthias Habich
Wilhelm Mohnke: Andre Hinnicke
Peter Kranz: Donevan Gunia
Heinrich Himmler: Ulrich Noethen

Newmarket Films presents a film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Written by Bernd Eichinger. Based on the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest, and the book Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller. Running time: 155 min. Rated R (for strong violence, disturbing images and some nudity).

A few years ago, Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature). It was a very simple interview documentary with Traudl Junge recalling her experiences as Hitler’s secretary during the Second World War. Downfall, also nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category this year, is the dramatization of the final days in the Berlin bunker for Hitler and his staff. This new film is bookended by footage from the Junge documentary where she confesses not to have known of the genocidal atrocities committed by the Nazis under the orders of Hitler; although the dramatized material shows Junge seeing a more humane side to the man, his darker nature and intentions confound Junge and Hitler’s military staff, who understand little of what this madman was trying to accomplish during the final desperate days before his double suicide with Eva Braun.

It is fascinating, as an American filmgoer, to get a look at that great war from the German point of view. Admittedly, this film focuses on a period in the war when the German forces were crumbling and in general disarray, but it seems as if the Germans are still the bad guys in this one. More accurately they are the good guys and the bad guys, but nothing is so black and white in this film.

Bruno Ganz (The Manchurian Candidate) portrays Hitler as a man who once had a dream for his people. A man so convinced he is right that against all reason he chooses to remain in Berlin when it becomes obvious the city will fall to the Russian forces surrounding it, because his conviction will prove his cause’s worthiness to his people and the world, even if the Fuhrer must take his own life in the end. His military staff and their families alternate between those who see his folly clearly and want to abandon him but stay out of loyalty to the German cause, and those who are so brainwashed by their belief in the cause that they are willing to sacrifice themselves with the same vigorous insane rationale as Hitler himself. There are many who have already abandoned the cause and opted to leave Berlin to begin negotiations with the Allied Forces. Many of those people wear two faces, like Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen, The Red Jacket) who claims loyalty to Hitler’s face, while secretly opening negotiations with the Allies. “When I meet Eisenhower, should I give the Nazi salute, or shake his hand?”

It is said that most criminal acts are acts of desperation. Of course, the war crimes of the German officers of Hitler’s inner circle hang ever present over the proceedings presented here, although none of the genocide is ever actually dramatized; it has been seen enough in other films that its representation is unnecessary here. The desperation of these crimes is saturated throughout this picture, however. Hitler himself goes from soft moments of solitude to vociferous outrage during his strategy meetings, consciously defying any sensible advice due to his personal desperation to ensure meaning to his inevitable demise, while many of his officers fight in vain desperation to defend Berlin’s indefensible position from the Russian Army because that is what their Fuhrer has ordered them to do. The desperation of the German citizens is seen in the many nameless non-soldiers who are ravaged by the bombing raids and artillery fire as their leaders have abandoned their responsibility for them. A bomb hits a group of people, refugees in their own city, and seconds after the dust has cleared the people return to find out who was with them that is now lying dead in the street.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment) takes a sort of Altman-esque approach to the story, throwing a very large ensemble together, following multiple storylines. There are no real introductions to the characters, many of which need none for their infamy. Their jobs shape both their lives and the audience’s view of them. The SS commanders on the front line seem the most vulnerable. We root for them because they are in the line of fire. Although, really everyone here is in the line of fire. While Hitler himself, who shuts himself off from any realization of what is going on around him -- because of him -- becomes everyone’s enemy. Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler, Nowhere in Africa) is the consummate party girl, throwing a party in a ballroom above the bunker during an artillery raid, even trying to make the suicide pills seem fun to the secretaries. It is Magda Gobbles (Corina Harfouch, Hamlet X) who could be seen as the coldest heart, with her insistence on poisoning all the Goebbels children because “growing up in a socialist state would be worse than death.” It is a remarkable performance by Harfouch, who convinces us that someone could actually think that such an unthinkable act is the right thing to do.

Alexandra Maria Lara (Cowgirl) is the doe-eyed innocent secretary Frau Junge, who witnesses these events along with the audience. It is interesting how her role is not omnipresent, allowing the audience to interpret much of the events on their own but it is through Junge that we are treated to the rare glimpses of humanity from Hitler himself. Ganz, in his portrayal of the Fuhrer, gives a hint that he is a touch conflicted in his resolve, but he allows no other to see that he may have doubts about his mission. It is a very delicate performance in his quite moments, juxtaposed by the trapped animal that Hitler becomes for his officers who have nothing but bad news to give him.

Naturally Ganz’s performance as Hitler has gained most of the attention for this film with his range of emotions and madness, but the picture is very much an ensemble effort. The cast gives us a unique look into the psyche of a group of people who did what some could not understand for a time. These filmmakers realize that these people in that horrible bunker were people, just like anyone. Like anyone, desperate times create desperation in them all, and individuals deal with that desperation in a way dictated by their personality. Some ran away. Some pretended everything was all right. Some did their jobs. Some lied in order to survive, and Hitler thrashed like a caged animal.

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