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Downfall

dir: Oliver Hirshbiegel
[img_assist|nid=989|title=The man himself, who is now, and for all eternity, trapped in a Jewish deli where they never get around to serving him|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=430|height=310]
To a lot of people it might seem redundant making another film about World War II, because for those of us not born in the 80s, other than JFK's assassination, the Vietnam War and Abigail's breasts on Number 96, no event had as profound an impact upon the last century as WWII did, and there is no shortage of movies or tv stuff devoted to the occasion.

Even if people don't know the details regarding Uncle Adolf, his life and death or the frightening power he once held, they know at least that he is one of history's nastiest villains.

So who needs another movie about the downfall of the Third Reich? Maybe Holocaust deniers, anti-semites and warmongers need to have versions of these films made and have ye olde worlde VHS copies fisted into their various orifices. But the rest of us think we know all there is to know about it.

Even if Downfall isn't necessary, it's still damn compelling. A film that successfully captures and gets across the surreal atmosphere of Berlin towards the end of the war has to be vital viewing for those with the time, patience and inclination.

Anyone that knows a bit about German cinema of the last 50 years knows that there aren't exactly a plethora of German films dealing with WWII and Hitler. Unlike the States of course, for whom the invention of film seems to have predominantly been for the purpose of heroically depicting its men fighting the barbarian hordes overseas.
There used to be an agreed reason as to why German directors and producers rarely went into this kind of subject matter, but also it's hard to imagine their audiences cartwheeling all over each other in order to get to their cinemas to watch films about their country falling under the sway of an absolute grandiose arsehole and losing a war which was meant to give them the world and everything in it. It's depressing subject matter, I guess, but there's also the idea that being lectured at can get awfully tiresome.

For years I've often wondered what happened to the German people after the end of the war, in terms of those who were the true believers and who wholeheartedly swallowed all that idiotic crap about being a master race and needing to kill all Jewish people in order to really shine as a nation. When the Nazi hierarchy had their collective arses handed to them by the Allies, I wonder how long it took before people "forgot" all the crap that they'd been nodding their heads to whilst listening to the precursor of talkback radio, and started pretending it was someone else who went to the rallies and turned blind eyes to the atrocities going on.

This film doesn't answer my questions, but it's a start. Imagine what it must have been like, if you want to, don't do me any favours, for not only those military leaders and high-ranking Nazis close to Hitler, but Hitler himself when it became painfully obvious that their dreams of ruling the world were going to fall in a heap. That is the scope of what this film represents, and represents well.

Of course it's depressing subject matter (for me), but it's nonetheless fascinating. As a curious kind of framing device, the film begins in 1943 as Uncle Adolf selects a secretary from a bunch of eager ladies. After he makes his choice the film jumps forward straight to the dying days of the Third Reich. There is a reason for this, curious as it seems. One of the people that stayed with the Fuhrer until the end was his loyal secretary, Traudl Junge, played with believable but sometimes off-putting wide-eyed innocence by Alexandra Maria Lara. And though the flick shows the last days from the points of view of a number of people, Traudl is the one that is supposed to be our entry point into the film.

There was a recent documentary about her called Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, where she spent most of the doco's length saying that she knew nothing about the Final Solution or the Reich's genocidal actions, because Hitler himself was mostly a kindly, gentle sort who only occasionally ranted about the Jews. Downfall begins and ends with two telling and important quotes from her, the latter agreeing that for all her obliviousness she is not absolved of her complicity.

We can't be expected to watch a film and relate to it from the point of view of people like Hitler himself, or Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Boorman, Speer or even Eva Braun. These people have been so thoroughly demonised by history that they're less than human to us; they are monsters and demons, all. How could we relate to people who sat at the top of a massive pyramid of bodies, who partied and profited from the deaths of millions based on idiotic notions of lebensraum and justifiable genocide?

It's Traudl we relate through. She sees the Fuhrer at his most gentle, with children, with his beloved dog Blondi, and with insane party girl Eva, and she's there when his paranoid madness explodes and he screams at the top of his lungs about the German generals who are betraying him (only in his mind), about the Jewish conspiracies aligned against him, and the overall worthlessness of the German people for allowing their racial weakness to be revealed by their failure to achieve victory. She wants to see the good in the gentle, grandfatherly Uncle Adolf, and not believe that he is the same raging, delusional Fuhrer who tore Europe apart with his bare ego.

This leads us of course to the "controversy" surrounding the film. I did't think before watching it or afterwards that there was anything particularly controversial about any aspect of it, but some people, I'm guessing a few who haven't seen it, resent the film for its very existence. It's not like it has any gay people getting married in a church whilst getting IVF help in conceiving babies genetically engineered from stem cells, or anything.
They, the generic "they", resent the film because it allegedly humanises Uncle Adolf and his nearest and dearest. I can't deny the charge: it does humanise him. Bruno Ganz cuts an eerily accurate portrait of the man in all his glory. Of course it humanises him and should humanise him: he was human after all, much as we don't want to believe it. If the film was to have any worth it required him being played as a character, not as a caricature. And the manner in which he is humanised is by showing him at his most pathetic, with a few moment of gentleness just to perplex the viewer further. For my money it's hard to argue against that.

For all his central importance, Ganz's portrayal doesn't take up the majority of the screen time. It is just as important to flesh out the last days by looking at the various personages around him, and the reactions of the German people who could not know how the war was going to end.

The way in which this occurs is quite inspired in my anything but humble opinion. Fairly early on we are given two explicit impressions: Adolf either blames the German people for his downfall or no longer cares what happens to them, and thus doesn't care to find any way to alleviate their suffering before or after the Russians finish off the Third Reich; knowing this, and seeing the writing on the wall, his various senior officers deal with the last days in different ways.

Some of the officers want to sue for peace (Himmler), others want to help the wounded civilians and soldiers in anticipation of the coming surrender (Schenck) and minimise casualties, others agree with the Fuhrer that the German people deserve to get their throats cut, mostly for having put the Nazis in power in the first place (a consumptive and cadaverous looking Goebbels). Another wants to do nothing more than drink and whore his way through till the end, whilst others want to fight and die on their feet.

The civilians are shown either blindly believing that with their plucky efforts and stick-to-it-tiveness they can still drive the Bolsheviks back (and instead dying by the bushel), keeping their heads down, or running around settling old scores by lynching people for fun and profit. You start to feel sorry for the German people, something which rarely happens in any war film you usually get to see. Then that little vicious voice whispers in your head "yeah, but the fuckers asked for it". Then a quieter, girlier voice says "But you can’t blame civilians for the actions of their governments, can you, even if they did vote for them on a platform of killing all the Jewish people and flossing twice daily?"

Ganz deserves the lion's share of the laurels, just to mix my metaphors, and he's received plenty. He brings a charismatic gravity to the role, a fragility and a pervading disbelief that his Hitler could have his destiny thwarted by mere insects. One of my favourite scenes has the big guy staring up with broken-hearted longing at a painting of what I think was Otto Von Bismarck, but he gives everything he's got in every scene. It's hard for me to believe that this is the same guy who played an angel who falls in love with humanity in Wings of Desire, now playing a man who would damn the world and everyone in it because of his frustrated dreams. He does it well, not afraid to really give it some fire when he's ranting, but also giving himself over to the twisted physicality of the man in the quieter moments.

Every level of Hitler's failure is illuminated for our delectation, for our horror, but probably not for our sympathy. And we await the inevitable (for those of us who actually know how the war turned out), knowing that he was dead a long time before he bit the bullet in the bunker.

The most chilling aspect of the film relates to the True Believers closest to him, the people who could not imagine a world in which Nazism wasn't the triumphant ideology and where the Fuhrer was powerless to prevent their destruction. People like Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda, who decide that a world without Hitler isn't worth living in for themselves or their family. This leads to a scene of quiet horror more terrible than anything I've ever seen in a slasher flick or on reality television. That people could think like that then, and think like this now is quite disturbing. The scene where Magda attends to her children is gut-wrenching but probably the most important in the film in terms of showing the power that Hitler had over people, or the volition they were willing to give up to him.

The greater level upon which the film succeeds involves getting the right tone to go alongside the recreation of known events. It's grim, but large sections are suffused with a surreal, almost comic ludicrousness. The little humour to be found in the film is mostly gallows humour, since there's little to laugh about when you're talking about people that started some shit that resulted in an overall death count of around 50 million. Give or take a few gypsies and retards.

The film looks incredibly realistic. It's well shot but not overly so, in that it’s not showy for the sake of it. Since most of the action happens underground in the cells and corridors of the bunker it doesn't need to look like Barry Lyndon or The Duellists. But its dark tone and sometimes cold shot set-ups match the material well.

I don't know how much money they spent on making it but it looks like it was painfully and accurately reconstructed. I do have a few issues with the film. There are a lot of characters. It's hard to keep track of them at some points, and they also don't all have enough screen time for you to know who's being referred to by other characters. Complaining about the running time is petty, but it's a long-arse film, I'll tell you that for free. It may only be 156 minutes long, but it felt longer. I joked with a friend of mine over a beer afterwards that the one thing the film needed was to be longer. His main comment was, "Gee, that secretary was a hottie."

Past that he pointed out a few inaccuracies in the movie, being something of a WWII buff himself, and having recently read Antony Beevor's excellent book Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 (this flick is based on Joachim Fest's book Inside Hitler's Bunker, The Last Days of the Third Reich), but thought that overall it was very well done. He's Canadian, though, so you've got to cut him some slack.

The ending is also a bit implausible. I can't say why without spoiling it, but something about it didn't feel right (with Traudl, I don't mean the collapse of the Reich, which I will never accept).

Still, it's a major film achievement, and I suspect there are hundreds of thousands of students in schools that will be watching this film from now until the Fourth Reich begins as part of their history classes, because this is a quality film that any underpaid teacher would be happy to inflict upon their kids.
As far as depictions of Hitler go, this is probably the second best I've seen after Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Though the film could have been even better if they'd included the song "Springtime for Hitler and Germany" from Mel Brooks' The Producers. That would have really blown the roof off.

8 times no-one needs to tell me that compassion is a wasted emotion for sociopaths out of 10

--
Germany was having trouble, what a sad, sad story
Needed a new leader to restore its former glory
Where oh where was he? Where could that man be?
We looked around, and then we found, the man for you and me,
And now it's ...

Springtime for Hitler and Germany,
Deutschland is happy and gay.
We're marching to a faster pace,
Look out, here comes the master race.

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