JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Downfall (Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel) - January 10, 2005
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Downfall

5 5
150 min.

Reviewed at the 2005 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Loving the children to death

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s chronicle of Hitler’s last fortnight on earth is a horrifically compelling testimony to humanity’s ability to produce, nurture then fail to rein in those whose quest for personal power and superiority defies reason, common sense and empathy. The vast majority of their constituents feel powerless and, unwittingly, go along with the gag until the rationalizations of “creating a better world,” “doing the right thing,” and “ridding the planet of its scourges,” are, finally and too late, seen as mere set dressing for the tyrant’s hidden agenda; the fulfillment of which unleashes unspeakable travesties that, once checked, “will never be allowed to happen again.”

The source texts (Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich and Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary) have provided writer/producer Bernd Eichinger with the fodder for his screenplay, but it is through the “eyes of babes” that the most telling indictment of one man’s obsession with dominance is brought home.

As back-story, the film opens with the admission from Traudl Junge that “I was not an enthusiastic Nazi,” setting the stage for her selection from a group of equally naïve and demurring women. Fascinating here is the “Miss Universe-like” feigned sincerity of the losers, hovering around the twenty-two-year-old Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) as she announces her appointment as Hitler’s secretary.

From there the “stage” shift’s to the Fuhrer’s bunker, and in particular the war room—where the main tactical equipment is a map, which continuously reveals the unstoppable approach of the Russians.

As Hitler, Bruno Ganz ignites the screen with every appearance: his rages against traitors and betrayal (perceived and real) are delivered with ugly conviction, even as his uncontrollable left hand shakes in silent affirmation; his descent into madness (effectively aided by the hair and makeup crew), at first relinquishing his grip “I am no longer in control,” then, as denialist extraordinaire: “We have to get things moving again,” shows Ganz’s incredible range and ability to get under everyone’s skin. When it comes to the few poignant moments (the suicide lessons, the marriage to Eva and the dictation to Junge of his last testament—… “and then to eternal peace …”)—Ganz espouses his lines calmly, but his fantastically expressive body language (from eerie eye movement to stilted walk) adds magnificent sub-text, proving conclusively that actions change but attitudes do not.

However, it’s the kinder who drive the message home most effectively. Once the Clausewitz (defend Berlin at all costs) begins, everyone can play. Pubescent Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia)—all dressed up in his uniform—will get a medal for destroying two Russian tanks. He’s proud of the program and ignores his father’s (Karl Kranskowski, superb in his angst) pleas for sanity: Impressionable youth, caught up in the excitement and defence of the Fatherland. Much later—real carnage everywhere—Peter reverts to being a boy and reunites with his parents in their squalid apartment above the open grave that used to be a city.

Worse still are the Goebbels. With blind, deranged obedience Papa (Ulrich Matthes), as he and Hitler harden their resolve to defend Berlin to the last man (the women and children not counting for much anyway), declares “I feel no sympathy …. The German people chose their fate.” For her part, Mama (Corinna Harfouch) can’t fathom a world without national socialism, and because her six children are “too good for what will come,” poisons them all before she and her adoring husband end their own lives with the same request as Hitler and Eva: burn our bodies so that no trace will be left for the victors. With cruel irony, both couples vanish from the planet in a roaring gas oven.

Finally, a cherubic blond-haired child in short pants—poster boy for the master race—adopts Junge as his mother and leads her through the Russians to safety (“They want us; women have a chance,” declares a Nazi). What sort of person will this young man become, whose musical hit parade has been the cantus firmus of bombs, artillery, and screams of the dying?

As the German forces begin to collapse, Albert Speer (Heino Ferch)—an enthusiast for the planned “treasure house of art and culture” that has been promised after victory—advises his Fuhrer that “You must be on stage when the curtain falls.&lrquo; Telling words for the manic pretender who has talked a nation into believing that their superiority necessitates the permanent removal of the weak from the globe.

Deftly underscored by Stephan Zacharias’ string-laden soundscape and cinematographer Rainer Klausmann’s truly terrific skill in capturing the grim reality of the horror that was 1945 Berlin, Hirschbiegel pushes many buttons: the collective guilt of a nation for atrocities committed by their state balanced against the horrific human price of no surrender; the astonishing loyalty of the women around the cold-hearted dictator and the SS who vow to fight on because “we cannot outlive the Führer’s death”; the double standard of being superior but cleansing themselves of traitors and the imperfect until there’s no leadership left to carry the torch.

This difficult but brilliantly executed film will continue the discourse about one of the worst human tragedies ever, even as others flare up or continue. The lust for power, like the Nazis’ destroying the files once their dream was dashed, purges the previous lessons of history. No one should miss the opportunity of learning this message—particularly those, today, who have assigned themselves the task of making the world a better place. JWR

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