Thursday, March 11, 2010

Downfall - **** (2002)

Of all emotions that are experienced during “Downfall,” the one that we can never anticipate feeling is empathy. No, not empathy for people or for the circumstances that place them in such ominous situations; here is a movie where it is clear from all angles that those involved have made their bed, and are deservingly lying in it. Yet as the dream around them crumbles into heaps of rubble and their followers become corpses in crowded alleys, we watch the hope and strength fade from their faces and, in a brief moment, reveal some small traces of common human dignity as they prepare to accept their fate. Like the characters of the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the men in women of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s magnificent opus occupy the narrative like shattered mirrors of themselves, retreating to the safety of their self-delusions and often reflecting on the reasons for their impending doom with great emphasis, as if to quietly confess their evil and seek some semblance of respect before the end comes.

The movie is based on the final ten days of the Third Reich, as told from the perspective of several key figures whom were present in the Berlin bunker that Adolf Hitler retreated to as Germany was invaded by Russian forces in 1945. Key among them is Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), the Führer's personal secretary, who for a period of three years dictated and kept record of the affairs of her boss while he waged a war against the better part of Europe. Too bad for Junge, and like most her generation, her youthful ignorance made it possible to slip through the information cracks that might have otherwise allowed her to see her employers in new light. This, she confesses, can be no excuse on part of any person associated with the Nazi party during those tumultuous years; during one of the most telling moments of the 2002 documentary “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary,” she openly admits that “if you value and respect someone, you don't really want to destroy the image of that person... you don't want to know, in fact, if disaster lies beyond the facade.” 

History proved that more than disaster brewed beneath the exterior of the father of Nazism. An angry, nihilistic and spiteful monster, he was nonetheless a man with such an intense drive that his radical cause became the voice of the German people for 12 years. He was, also, an ordinary human being, a fact that is easily dismissed by historians (and filmmakers) because of the great evil he brought into this world. Yes, but true evil can only happen if it comes from the human condition, otherwise it is merely nature taking its course. And nothing natural occurred in the years of World War II when tens of millions were slaughtered like cattle in his name. 

The key to creating a functional movie about Hitler depends on these acknowledgments, all of which are underlined – and thoroughly dealt with – in “Downfall.” The Hitler of this endeavor is a fearsome, loathsome, loud and delusional being, caught up in such an overwhelming denial that he blatantly refuses surrender, even when the walls of his city crumble around him. And we believe this is exactly the way it happened, too. Bruno Ganz, so ordinarily gentle and sublime in his roles, takes hold of the job with clenched fists; his manner of expression, the ferocity of the delivery and the growl in his voice are so meticulous and researched, there is seldom a moment we consciously think about it as a performance. Ganz knows the challenge he is faced with by playing such a notorious historical figure and simply doesn’t let it divert him. It is a full and uncompromised embodiment. 

Much of the movie takes place in his underground bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery, where all the key figures of the Nazis retreated once it became apparent that fate was no longer on their side. Here we observe as ill-fated military orders become the veneer of a dictator no longer in touch with his reality, as Russian soldiers march closer to the city’s center and he ambitiously moves armies around on a map hoping for an effective strategy. The armies, of course, no longer existed by then, and no map could tell the Führer of just how far gone Berlin had become. But he was not one to submit or escape, despite the pleadings of even his closest advisers. Only Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), the Reich’s chief architect, has the audacity to encourage his superior to stay rooted to his cause to the very end, even though everyone knows that certain death was imminent. “You must be on stage when the curtain falls,” he proclaims. 

The Bunker itself is a cold, dank and depressing labyrinth of narrow halls and passages that seem to wind with never-ending determination. We sense that the dread of the characters is made all the more potent by their existence in it rather than just by the situation going on above ground; once thriving individuals in the streets of a city that showered them in rude luxuries, they have now been reduced to mere rats in an underground maze. As the men closest to Hitler huddle around their relentless leader, regaling each other with memories of better times, others begin to let go of the idealism and deal with the reality, often with jolting consequences. Consider, for instance, Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) – mother of six beautiful children and wife to Joseph, the German Minister of Propaganda (Ulrich Matthes), she is the portrait of unflinching success and drive, and no doubt any woman of any class would spend hours envying her. But the mask of her ideals falls abruptly when it becomes apparent that Hitler intends to commit suicide, leaving the Reich she loves so dearly in inauspicious shambles. Her story comes to a close with a final act so heinous and despicable, it can never be fully fathomed. 

The film claims to be adapted from a handful of personal memoirs from crucial Third Reich figures, including Junge, Speer and Gerhardt Boldt, as well as a very detailed and informative book called “Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich” by Joachim Fest*. What is not mentioned by anyone involved – and maybe only for accuracy reasons – is that the narrative seems largely inspired by “The Bunker” by James P. O’Donnel, which too takes the approach that all the important figures in Hitler’s circle saw themselves as players in a tragedy just as much as martyrs in a failed political ideology. Most members of the final gathering are only such because they are so passionately devoted to their leader and his resolve; even in moments where his temper is explosive, the closest of his followers stare at him with unflinching awe, as if to suggest that his preferred audience consisted only of people who would show unwavering support in the face of failure. Others wisely vacate their posts when the realization of failure hits them, whereas some are opt to yield simply for their own sake. One such being is Heinrich Himmler, who dares to ask the question upon the eve of his surrender: “When I meet Eisenhower, should I give the Nazi salute, or shake his hand?” 

That a single man and a group of his dedicated followers could persuade an entire generation of thinkers to follow so totalitarian a road as that of Nazism says something both genius and horrifying about our humanity. Our positions, our one-track minds could not comprehend the sadistic nature of an idea until it was far too late to reverse the act. We failed our fellow man in ensuring his safety in a time of great world economic clout, and we failed to see, to open our eyes, to the danger of rhetoric that was devised to manipulate a vulnerable populace into a position that would ultimately leave blood on its hands. This is a movie that forces us to confront those failures by viewing them from the inside – it is an unflinching, hard, relentlessly honest movie that refuses to ask questions that have easy answers. It is also brilliantly acted, written and focused, and directed by a man who knows that the path to understanding lies in the assertion that our most notorious villains wore the same flesh and blood as every man and woman that has lived on this Earth.  

Written by DAVID M KEYES  

*If you are to read any of the material this movie is based on, Fest’s book is the best place to start.

Drama/Historical (Germany); 2004; Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and some nudity; Running Time: 156 Minutes

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: Dr. Werner Haase 
Thomas Kretschmann: Hermann Fegelein 
Michael Mendl: Helmuth Weidling 
André Hennicke: Wilhelm Mohnke 
Ulrich Noethen: Heinrich Himmler 
Birgit Minichmayr: Gerda Christian

Produced by Wolf-Dietrich Brücker, Bernd Eichinger, Doris J. Heinze, Jörn Klamroth and Christine Rothe; Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel; Written by Bernd Eichinger; based on books and personal memoirs by Joachim Fest, Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller, among various others

1 comment:

ByJoJo said...

What an excellent review of this dark, horrifying movie. You described it just as I would if I could write as well as you do. Excellent, accurate, spot-on, eloquently written reivew! A movie that is hard to watch, but is very important since, like you say, it reminds us that history's biggest monsters are flesh and blood, just like us.