September 17, 2013

Movie Review: Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004)

We didn't force the German people. They gave us a mandate, and now their little throats are being cut! - Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes)

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Writers: Joachim Fest, Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller (books), Bernd Eichinger (screenplay)

Producer: Christine Rothe, Bernd Eichinger, Wolf-Dietrich Brücker, Doris J. Heinze and Jörn Klamroth

Studio: Constantin Film Produktion (Germany), Newmarket Films (US Distribution)

Major Stars: Bruno Ganz, Ulrich Matthes, Thomas Kretschmann, Alexandra Maria Lara, Heino Ferch, Juliane Köhler, Christian Berkel

Downfall is a remarkable film. Chronicling the final days of Adolph Hitler as the Russians surrounded Berlin, it shows us not only his final collapse, but how it affected those around him in the Reichsbunker and the citizenry of Berlin. It almost, almost makes you feel moments of pity for Hitler, which only testifies to Oliver Hirschbiegel's skill as a director and Bruno Ganz's skill as an actor.

The material for the film came from numerous books, but a majority of it was provided by Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge. She died two years before Downfall was released, but we watch this film primarily from her perspective. Clips from an interview she gave shortly before her death bookend the film and provide a very sobering analysis of her role in history.

In the film itself, she is portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara. Lara does a very nice job of having Junge sway between hysteria and competence, which is what it must have been like in that bunker, having to take dictation on the last testaments from murderous men and then talking to them as if they were just your average person.

There is not enough that can be said about the entire cast. Not only were the characters well-acted, but they all looked like their historical counterparts. I went online and compared photos of the actual people and the actors/actresses who portrayed them. It is remarkable how much they look alike. And that just enhanced their performances. Ulrich Noethen played Himmler amazingly well, getting exactly right his facile loyalty to Hitler and his ultimate loyalty to himself. Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels was pitch-perfect as the man who most believed in Hitler's vision but was constantly overlooked by Hitler. And Juliane Köhler as Eva was like watching an archival tape. She was fantastic.

But the performance of the film, and one of the greatest I have ever seen, was Bruno Ganz as Hitler. I cannot imagine what it is like to have to portray a man like Hitler day in and day out. And Ganz did it so thoroughly; from the voice to the walk to the look, Ganz was Hitler.

Ganz gives a performance that will make many people uncomfortable, because it shows Hitler as human. You see the things you expect to see; Hitler ranting about the Jews, making insane commands to divisions that don't exist and condemning the German people to their fate because they are "weak."

But then you see Hitler being gentle to his secretary during her first interview. You see him crushed when he has to put his dog down. In what I thought was the most remarkable scene of the film, you see him shed a single tear when he finds out Albert Speer, who in many ways was Hitler's closest friend, has not carried out his order to burn Germany to the ground before the Allied advance but still swears his personal loyalty. And it throws you off because you almost feel for Hitler...and then you remember he is Hitler. Ganz's performance is just stellar.

This portrayal of Hitler created more than a little blowback for Hirschbiegel. He was condemned for showing this side of Hitler without the context of his massive litany of crimes. And I think this misses the point.

We hate to think of people like Hitler, or Stalin or Pol Pot, as human. We think of them as pure monsters, bereft of any humanity. But we seem to want to forget that monsters like these must be human as well. I think that Hirschbiegel's point, in part, is that we need to recognize this. We need to acknowledge that even monsters such as Hitler are human. Because that means that any of us could find ourselves down this kind of path if circumstance and fate were aligned correctly. Which, in turn, requires us to be all the more vigilant against behaviors like these and the cultural/political situations that allow them to develop. Because Hitler was as much a manifestation of the German people at that time as he was their leader. That is brought home towards the end of the film with the roving bands of "security forces" who execute any German man they see not fighting the Russians in a lost cause.

The "humanizing" criticism extended to other characters in the film as well. Ernst-Günther Schenck, an SS doctor, is seen trying to find supplies for wounded soldiers and maintain food supplies for the citizens of Berlin. What you aren't shown is that he was a doctor at Dachau and that he tested health and food suppliments on prisoners, some of whom died. We are shown SS General Wilhelm Mohnke as a soldier who just takes orders and tries to get his people to safety. What we aren't told is that in real life, Mohnke was accused multiple times of tolerating executions of Allied POWs.

While necessary to show their human side as well, I think that these criticisms hold more weight. We know that, for all the crying and gentleness that Hitler shows us on screen, he was also responsible for the slaughter of six million Jews and a war that that destroyed Europe. There is a balance there. But how many people know who Schenck is? Or Mohnke? Their backgrounds are a blank slate to most people. And that unbalances their portrayal in the film.

Hirschbiegel also makes an interesting decision in regards to Traudl Junge. By film's end she has escaped Berlin with a young boy and is riding a bike towards American lines along a forest road. In reality she was captured in Berlin by the Soviets and held for a year as a Soviet officer's "personal prisoner." Make of that phrase what you will. I don't know if that was to somehow symbolize Junge's freedom from the Nazi ideology that had ensnared her three years earlier or simply because Hirschbiegel didn't want to show the Soviets as they were in their drive on Berlin. The atrocities engaged in on both sides of the Russo-German conflict are well-documented. I guess Hirschbiegel wanted to keep the focus on the Germans.

The cinematography was wonderful; it looks like Berlin in early 1945. The rubble and ruin look fresh. The handful of battle scenes are very impressive. And I have never been treated to such authentic-looking amputations performed with a hacksaw. Which makes me all the more thankful for modern medicine.

Downfall is a fascinating, disturbing look at one of the most brutal men in human history in his final days. But it is also a look at the people who followed him, some who worshiped him (the fate of Goebbels' children, and how it comes about, is one you will remember long after the film), and the impact that faith and leadership had on Germany as a whole. Downfall would be a very good film even without Bruno Ganz. But his performance brings this film to another level.

I would place Downfall just behind Ivan's Childhood. There is something haunting and touching about Ivan that makes me place it higher by the slightest of margins. But that in no way degrades Downfall; I think if you look at the list you are beginning to see sections form and Downfall is in the top section. This was such a great film to watch and I cannot encourage you enough to do the same. You won't regret it.


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