Tuesday 12 April 2005

Downfall (2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

The Swiss-born actor Bruno Ganz is phenomenal as Adolf Hitler in the last days of the Third Reich. Two strands are rigorously inter-woven: the factual story of the collapse of the German army and the subsequent fall of Berlin to the Soviets; and the human perspective of the same events from the point of view of Muenchner, Frau Traudl Junge (played by the doe-eyed Alexandra Maria Lara), one of Hitler's secretaries, who stayed with him in his bunker in Berlin till the very end. This German-made film is faultless. I can't think of anything that could have been done better. I know some of the events are interpolated from various accounts (that Hitler shot himself and his wife, Eva Braun, whom he married shortly before his death; that Goebbels - played here by the striking Ulrich Matthes - and his wife poisoned their children before shooting themselves; that Hitler asked that his remains be totally destroyed by incineration, as did Goebbels), but all of this seems plausible, even obvious, within the context of the movie.

Hitler's downfall is manic: his generals are baffled by his arrogant optimism, which unwinds into madness, like the forelock that refuses to remain in place above his forehead. He insists that his orders are followed, even though his generals tell him that his 9th and 12th armies have been effectively wiped out. It's astonishing to see how some of his followers remain loyal to the ideals with which they have been indoctrinated; others see that the war is lost and seek to escape or surrender. A young nurse urges her Fuehrer to lead and she will follow, with the Red Army a few hundred metres away from their position.

A couple of things struck me: one forgets that although the war officially ended at midnight between 7 and 8 May 1945, the clean-up operation must have gone on for years. (Think how long the war in Iraq has gone on since the end of "official combat operations" on 1 May 2003.) It's also refreshing that Hitler and his generals are portrayed as human beings, rather than monsters. Ganz has developed a demented tick in Hitler's left hand, which he holds behind him out of view when meeting his officers. And yet there are moments of tenderness, particularly between him and his women, of whom Frau Junge was a favourite. There are also surprising moments of humour: such as when Eva Braun says that she hates Hitler's dog, Blondi, and kicks it occasionally when he's not there; and that Hitler is a teetotal vegetarian.

Nugget: a truly remarkable film: gruesome, touching, and yet still bewildering as to the Nazis' motives and their loyalty to the cause. Frau Goebbels murders her children because, she says, a future without National Socialism is not worth living. Ganz will be forever etched into my visualization of Hitler after this portrayal. It's up there with the greatest war movies of all time: Das Boot, Paths of Glory, Platoon, and Band of Brothers. (German with English subtitles.)

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