Sunday, March 20, 2005

Review - Downfall (Der Untergang)

Sixty years after the end of the second world war, Germans have recently been making numerous attempts to come to terms with their country’s past. Downfall, the new film from Oliver Hirschbiegel, is the first German film to deal directly with Adolf Hitler since GW Pabst’s Der Letzte Akt in 1955. Adapted by writer/producer Bernd Eichinger from the memoirs of Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Junge (who was also featured in the excellent 2002 documentary Blind Spot), the film portrays, with breathtaking accuracy, the final twelve days of the Third Reich.
Traudl Junge herself (here played by Alexandra Maria Lara) is our guide throughout Downfall. The film opens with her being hired by Hitler (Bruno Ganz) as his personal secretary in 1942 and then leaps forward three years to a Berlin on the edge of collapse. The city is being pummelled from all sides by the advancing Russian troops and is falling into anarchy. The reign of the Third Reich is coming to an end. Below the crumbling city, in his fortified bunker, Hitler struggles to maintain control. Hunched over a map and riddled with illness, he relays orders to units who no longer exist. His high-ranking officers all believe he should abandon the city or make a truce but Hitler himself believes he should “be on stage when the curtain falls”.

Elsewhere in the bunker, a myriad of subplots play out. Hitler’s lover Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) whirls surreally through the corridors insisting that everyone should eat, drink and party their sorrows away. Joseph and Magda Gobbles (Ulrich Matthes and Corrina Harfouch) decide what the best way is to end their lives - and the lives of their children - when the end becomes inevitable, while outside the confines of the bunker, a Nazi doctor (Christian Berkel) is fighting impossible odds to stem the rising death toll and a young boy (Donevan Gunia) is living by his wits to survive the onslaught.

This description doesn’t do justice to the density and complexity of Hirschbiegel and Eichinger’s approach to this difficult material. After his 2001 thriller Das Experiment Hirschbiegel was hailed as a talent to watch, but nobody would have expected him to be capable of a film like Downfall so early in his career. He expertly develops the different strands of the narrative without ever allowing the tension to slacken or losing sight of the emotional core of the film. The film is incredibly detailed too, with the spectacular production design and Rainer Klausmann’s brilliant cinematography placing the viewer right in the heart of war-torn Berlin and making us feel like a fly on the wall in Hitler’s corridors of power.

However, the bulk of the praise for Downfall must go to Bruno Ganz for his astonishing portrayal of Der Fuhrer himself. He seems to have physically shrunken for the role, his left hand, rendered useless by Parkinson’s disease, flutters nervously behind his back. It’s an extraordinary transformation for this Swiss-born actor, who we normally recognise from more romantic roles such as Wings of Desire. But his physical recreation of Hitler’s mannerisms is only half the story.

It’s the depiction of Hitler as a kindly, human, flawed character which has attracted controversy in Germany. There are moments, such as the scenes when Hitler is betrayed by his generals or the scene when he puts down his beloved dog, where I had an odd sensation; I felt sympathy for this man. One of the accusations levelled at the film is the idea that ‘humanising’ this character somehow dilutes his atrocities, a ridiculous notion. As soon as one feels a tinge of sorrow on Hitler’s behalf he explodes in an anti-Semitic rage or claims the German people have failed him and “will pay with their own blood”. Downfall simply gives us a fully-rounded, completely believable portrait of Adolf Hitler, and surely the fact that he was only one man, not a monster, makes his crimes all the more terrible. Hirschbiegel’s direction is determinedly non-judgemental, he simply shows us how events unfolded, documentary style, and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

Ganz aside, the rest of the cast all give stunning performances, with the actors playing Traudl Junge, Eva Braun, and the Goebbels proving to be the standouts. In particular, Corrina Harfouch is stunning as the chilling Magda Goebbels, a horrifying embodiment of the fanaticism which Hitler inspired. In one of the most sickening, powerful sequences of the year, She kills her six sleeping children, one by one, by placing a poisonous capsule between their teeth and closing them down on it with an audible and horrible crunch. She does this because she doesn’t want them to live in a world without National Socialism, and she does it without a flicker of emotion on her face. Her heart lies, first and foremost, with Der Fuhrer.

Downfall is an awesome achievement, a relentlessly intense, unflinchingly honest film which sheds light on a world which we’ve never seen before. It is a masterpiece of historical accuracy and an intelligent, powerful drama which commands the viewer’s attention from first frame to last. Unquestionably one of the year’s finest films, it’s also one of the most important. Only by truly understanding what happened in Germany from 1933 to 1945 can we hope to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.