08 February 2008

Movielog, Downfall

Downfall, 2005
Written by Bernd Eichinger
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
156 minutes

I saw this video on a few blogs I read.

And then, a while later I saw another really funny version that had some big football rivalry at its center... there was a funny bit involving a T-shirt, but I can't find it again.

Here's the original version:

I'd had the movie in my Netflix queue for awhile, just way down the list, but after seeing that scene, seeing the sheer wonder of the performance of Bruno Ganz as Hitler, it shot right up to the top of my to-watch list. And this is pretty much indicative of what you get from Ganz in the role -- his Hitler is maniacal, blaming everyone around him for his own mistakes, accusing his generals and his people of betraying him, and moving invisible armies around a map in mad denial of his own loss. And still Ganz shows us the humanity of this figure -- he is kind to his secretaries, loves his dog, and compliments his cook for the quality of his final meal. He is kind, generous, and also insane, raging, and one of the most evil men in history.

The film itself is mostly plotless. It is bookended by documentary footage of Traudl Junge (played in the movie proper by Alexandra Maria Lara, whom you saw in the scene above), a secretary hired in 1942 to work directly for Hitler, to take his dictation and send out his memos. She is delighted to find she has gotten the job, and is starstruck by the powerful man who has entered her life.

The movie then cuts to the very last days of the war, essentially the last week and a half or so of Hitler's life. The Russian army is but ten or twelve kilometers from the heart of Berlin, and they are shelling the city day and night. Hitler and the other high-ranking Nazi Party members retreat into their underground bunker, while the city above them devolves into chaos. A small boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, is commended for having destroyed two tanks with a bazooka. Parties rage on even as the shelling gets worse (a surreal detail that makes the three-month party-slash-siege in the heart of Pynchon's V. seem much less slapstick than I originally believed it to be), and thousands are dying every day.

In the bunker, Hitler calmly prepares for his end, going so far as to give a dose of poison to his beloved dog to ensure that the chemical maintains its lethality. Magda Goebbels brings her children into the bunker, and they act like it's just one big vacation, sitting in "Uncle Hitler's" lap and singing children's songs. German officers and soldiers wander through the hallways drunk, and several executions and demotions take place.

The movie spends some time with a doctor, Ernst-Gunther Schenck (Christian Berkel), who is one of the many day-to-day functionaries who performed their duties because of loyalty to their countrymen as opposed to that to Hitler himself, or to the Nazi Party in general. He spends most of his time in the film working as a surgeon's assistant, in a medical unit that better resembles a butcher's shop than anywhere I'd like to go for medical attention. Some have criticized this portrait of Schenck, due to his involvement in certain experiments of the Reich, but I think he is intended to be representative of those Germans who were, in the words of the real-life Junge, "reluctant Nazis," willing to surrender and live another day instead of using the very last rounds of ammunition on the Russians and then on themselves.

Ultimately, this is an amazing journey, and while historians quibble with some of the details of the portrayal of Hitler or others, it is a portrait of a city and a leadership that is being destroyed. This is war at its most real, and there are sequences here at least as good as any ever filmed in displaying the very real cost of battle. It's disturbing, forcing us as viewers to come to grips with our feelings on the Nazis, and the film hits the right note by not overly editorializing. We all know how evil the Nazi regime was -- here is a film that does not wallow in that evil, but simply shows us how that regime ended. In its minimalism, it finds brilliance.

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