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Der Untergang (Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich)

Some months ago I reviewed Im Toten Winkel: Hitler's Secretary, an interview with Traudl Junge who as a young woman was with Hitler in the final days of his life. At the time I wrote:

Her account of the events leading up to Hitler's bunker suicide is so eloquent that the images she paints - of the banality, the surreal macabreness, the isolation and desolation, the moments of tenderness and horror - are more compelling than any fictionalised account I can imagine.
Der Untergang is one such attempt. The film is known as Downfall in English speaking countries and the USA release further appends "Hitler and the End of the Third Reich" to the title. It draws heavily on Junge's account and is bookended by excerpts from her interviews.

I still hold what I stated to be true. The movie did not conjure up the weight of emotion I felt when seeing this old woman recount her experiences. Imagination and the knowledge that this was a real person surpasses even the most brilliant dramatisation. But Downfall came close.

Performance-wise this movie does not strike a single false note. Everyone, down to the merest bit player, is first-rate, children included. Two performances are worth singling out though.

Bruno Ganz faces the impossible task of playing Hitler. He has the weight of history against him: imdb lists well over two hundred portrayals prior to 2004 when this movie was made. He has the added challenge of not playing Hitler as a caricature or (just) a villain or madman. Instead Ganz's Hitler is complex and runs the gamut of emotion - tender and well-spoken in private, in turns confident, self-righteous, beaten, disillusioned and delusional with his military advisors. Hiding his shaking, Parkinson's afflicted hand in public, possessed of furious vitality when events and people go against him.

It's difficult not to recall archival footage of Hitler giving speeches when Ganz rants about the progress of the war or the threat of the Jews, and it's at these times when you seem to be watching a performance rather than a person. Though this I think would have contained an element of truth in actuality as well, and Ganz spices these moments with unexpected, quiet tears of anger and despair.

Not surprisingly it's the quiet moments - with his secretarial staff or Eva Braun - that are most effective, for we've not seen this Hitler before on screen. But even these scenes are not always straight-forward or in any way apologetic: he denies Braun the life of her brother-in-law Hermann Fegelein, decrying mercy and compassion - but with great tenderness towards her as he does so.

This Hitler and the Nazi idealogy inspired great fear and hatred, but also loyalty and love. Nothing personifies this loyalty more than Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels. She is a woman who talks about killing her own children because she does not want them to grow up in a world without National Socialism. It would be so easy for an actor when playing this scene to layer in a subtext of madness - even the slightest hint would reassure the audience that it's okay to hate this woman or consider her something less than human. To wink as if to say "I know I'm playing an evil woman, but I'm just playing her." But Harfouch doesn't do this. She plays these scenes with total commitment, as she does when Magda Goebbels breaks down and begs Hitler not to abandon them, or when - after Hitler's death - she sedates her children, or poisons them, or refuses to let her husband touch her afterwards, or plays a game of solitaire in a tiny room. It's an astounding performance that dares the audience to feel empathy for her.

It's Ganz who dominates the film, but it's Harfouch who resonates. She is devastating.

The film is structured in three acts - a series of voice overs and Hitler's suicide signal the act breaks. Its scope surprised me somewhat - I expected a more intimate, smaller-scale story. Instead we get multiple viewpoints: Traudl Junge (played with Frodo-like innocence by Alexandra Maria Lara), seeing - but perhaps not taking in - the horror around her, the compassionate SS doctor Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel looks like and projects the earnestness of Ed Harris), the blindly loyal youth Peter Kranz and his battle-wearied father Wilhelm, and a rotating roster of military leaders. We see what happens in and outside the bunker as the Russian army draws closer.

We see the German people - civilians, common soldiers, officers and SS - being honourable, petty, loyal, vengeful, courageous, sadistic. The movie doesn't shirk from the good or evil that men do.

The production values are very high - there's just as much grit (though not as much spectacle) in Der Untergang as there was in Saving Private Ryan. In almost every other way the two movies are poles apart however.

There is no shortage of memorable images: a hospital basement filled with corpses and abandoned elderly patients, a flower in the dirt - new growth flowering in amidst the devastation, a doctor sawing limbs off the wounded and throwing them into a pan on the ground, and men and women committing suicide again and again and again.

At first the violence is strangely bloodless, literally - people are shot and die but you can't see any blood. But then the blood becomes more and more visible until we see not only blood on the walls but brains on the ground when soldiers choose to shoot themselves rather than be taken by the Russians.

There is a single falsely placed moment in the dramatisation. Early in the first act Junge nearly breaks down at a party arranged by Eva Braun. She comments on the surreality of people enjoying themselves even as Berlin is under attack. But it's too early in the film for such an emotional moment to work. We haven't seen enough scenes through her eyes and haven't spent enough time in the bunker for the dream-like insanity to hit us with the necessary force. The claustrophia early in the script is physical - people of all ranks are constantly packed into rooms like cattle - but it's not psychological. Yet.

There are also some subtitle problems - some words are missing vowels with umlauts. "Führer" is spelled correctly throughout, thankfully (else the distraction would have been unbearable) but "Göring" is rendered "Gring" and there are other similar post production errors.

Finally - and this touches on the core of the controversy that I'm sure this film has/will attract - the film feels the need to implicitly apologise, via captions and narration, for the holocaust, the 50 million casualties, and for those, like Traudl Junge, caught up in the horrors not to have realised and done something about it at the time. In fact, Junge's realisation that her youth was no excuse which ended Im Toten Winkel also ends Downfall.

Obviously feelings of shame and regret about what happened are entirely warranted, let me be perfectly clear about that. But they feel just a fraction out of place in the movie. Because, ultimately, I'm not sure if Downfall is about guilt and responsibility. I think it's a study about what happens to men and women when they face inevitability, and I don't think it condemns people such as Junge as being morally culpable.

But it's almost mandatory to include such sentiments, if only in a postscript to the dramatised events. The enormity of historical events demands it.

Some may have the view that it's morally bankrupt to portray Hitler in even a partially sympathetic light, as this movie does. I think that a lot of people would like to believe that a man capable of such atrocities as ordering the extermination of an entire race wouldn't be capable of courtesy or kindness, or shouldn't be portrayed as such for fear of humanising him. They consider, and want to consider, people such as Adolf Hitler as inhuman.

But I think that's looking at it from the wrong perspective. Movies such as Der Untergang, as well as being brilliant dramatic works of art, offer a confronting reminder of a chilling fact, unfortunately rendered banal when committed to mere words: not that monsters are also human. But that humans can also be monsters.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 25, 2005 2:18 AM.

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