Downfall


Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 
  Downfall
Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
In late April of 1945 a member of the Hitler Youth, Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia), believes there is still hope of defeating the Russians as Berlin is bombed.  Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel, "Das Experiment") works desperately to help wounded German soldiers and his elder colleague Prof. Dr. Werner Haase (Matthias Habich, "Nowhere in Africa") while urging the fit to flee the city.  Below the city streets, twenty-five year old secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara, "Nackt") is horrified by the insanity that is the last days in Hitler's (Bruno Ganz, 2004's "The Manchurian Candidate") bunker.  All three are witnessing their country's "Downfall."

Laura (movie only - see Robin's DVD review below):
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel last explored the dark recesses of human nature with his 2001 "Das Experiment," but that film laid no expectations that he was capable of the epic scope and towering achievement that is "Downfall."  Simply put, no film has captured the insanity of the Fall of Berlin and Adolph Hitler's final descent into apoplectic, raging madness like this one does.  It is one of the very best war films ever made.  Critics who are quick to condemn this film as 'humanizing' Hitler should remember that serial killer Ted Bundy possessed abundant charm - without a modicum of charm, there is no seduction.

Screenwriter Bernd Eichinger (screenplay) adapted the story from both Joachim Fest's "Inside Hitler's Bunker" and the recollections of Traudl Junge, the woman featured in the documentary "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," but wisely also includes above ground points of view.  He begins with a brief prologue at the Wolf's Lair in late 1942 which dramatizes the interview and hiring of Traudl, then segues to April 20, Hitler's 56th birthday two and a half years later.  Hitler's highest ranking officers all clearly see the end in sight and believe Hitler should abandon the city, but few will dare advise him of this.  Architect Albert Speer (Heino Ferch, "Run Lola Run") pleases the Fuhrer with his infamous advise 'You must be on the stage when the curtain falls.'  In a bit of jaw-dropping chutzpah, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen, "The Harmonists") muses that the defeating Allies will need his SS to maintain order and wonders if he should give Eisenhower the Hitler salute or shake his hand!  Flighty Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler, "Nowhere in Africa") insists that everybody dance.

Above ground, thirteen year old Peter's father tries to convince a group of youngsters to stop fighting the inevitable, but he's branded a traitor.  In Hitler's last public act, he awards Peter with a medal (the boy took out two Russian tanks with a bazooka) and pinches his cheek.  With his officers, Hitler insists that he has troops that can cut off the Russian offense, but they know these units can barely defend themselves. With wonderful archness, General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling (Michael Mendl, "Amen") reports to the bunker to be shot for retreating and finds himself instead given command of Berlin's defense - 'I would rather have been shot than be given such an honor,' he responds. Hitler insists that no one will surrender as Nazi MPs above ground shoot old men for failing to defend the demolished city.  Bunker officers drown themselves in booze and Eva cheerfully visits them to sneak a cigarette (the Fuhrer is closed in upon by the vices he detests).  When it becomes clear to even the deluded Hitler that Berlin will fall, he spits out in fury that he should have liquidated his top officers like Stalin and screams that the German people have gotten what they deserve.  He then quietly marries Eva ('Are you of pure Aryan descent?' the officiator asks), asks Adjutant, SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Günsche (Götz Otto, "Tomorrow Never Dies") to burn their remains so he is not displayed in a Russian museum, and says his goodbyes, pinning a medal on Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) for being the 'bravest mother in the Reich' (the woman nearly has an orgasm at the accolade).

The film's final act (running time is 148 minutes) deals with Berlin's final collapse and Traudl's escape from the city.  In "Downfall's" most sickening and chilling scene, Magda Goebbels convinces her children to take 'bitter medicine,' a sleeping draught which her eldest, Helga (Aline Sokar), rightfully fears.  When they are asleep Magda begins with the youngest, most angelic child, and six times, places a suicide capsule between their teeth and clamps their jaws shut.  Above ground, Haase cannot believe that many of the remaining officers will still carry out Hitler's orders, even though the Germans have officially surrendered.  Suicides are rampant as Traudl walks past the Russian Army with young Peter having taken her hand.  After a roll call of the final fates of those who survived, "Blind Spot" footage is shown, with Traudl refusing to absolve herself for not having known about the Final Solution.

This is the barest outline of the myriad storylines and characters with which Hirschbiegel so effectively layers his film.  He evokes the entire horror of the Nazi regime within these final days, defining Berlin as a Hell on earth.  Production designer Bernd Lepel ("Bear's Kiss") recreated the bunker at Bavaria Studios with low ceilings and four walls, all sweaty institutional pale green rooms and tiled corridors. Cinematographer Rainer Klausmann ("Head-On") worked with natural light and hand held camera to accommodate the claustrophobic effect.  St. Petersburg, Russia, stands in for Berlin's exteriors, and again, Klausmann works mostly with natural light for an appropriately dismal mood.  The effect is completed with the moody score by Stephan Zacharias and the vintage perfect costume design of Claudia Bobsin ("Das Experiment").  For all the production's exemplary technical qualities, however, it is Hirschbiegel's extensive cast who really bring the death-laden tale to cinematic life.

Ganz, who looks nothing like Hitler, is able to make us forget this by embodying the dichotomy of the man.  'He can be so caring and then say such brutal things,' Traudl wonders to Eva.  'That's when he's being the Fuhrer,' Eva replies.  With his left hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back, Ganz plays Adolph in three notes - the kindly, courtly gentleman who loves women, children and his dog; the spitting raging tyrant who believes he is the victim of betrayal but comforts himself upon his defeat with the knowledge that he wiped out the Jews and the contemplative broken old man who sits quietly with his thoughts, still scheming amidst his stew.

Even more amazing performances, however, come from the two women in Hitler's life, both of whom should be remembered for Best Supporting Actress honors at year's end. Juliane Köhler gives life to the flighty, flirty Eva through most of the film, then adds a mysterious depth to the character right before her death.  After dispensing of her possessions via a letter to her sister and gifting Traudl with a fur coat, Köhler sits at a three-way mirror thoughtfully observing herself.  She applies a fresh coat of red lipstick and gives herself a small, secret smile - contemplating her place in history perhaps?  It's a marvelous moment that adds needed complexity.  Equally good is Corinna Harfouch as the most monstrous mother in cinema history.  Rapt with obsession over her Fuhrer's National Socialism, she trots out her six person choir for the glorification of Nazi Germany, then steels herself to snuff their lives when the future holds something different.  Alexandra Maria Lara plays Traudl in wide-eyed disbelief, while Birgit Minichmayr ("Hotel") adds a dose of more grounded warmth as her colleague Gerda.

Ulrich Matthes ("Aimée & Jaguar") plays Joseph Goebbels as perhaps weaker than, if equally invested as, his wife Magda, crying to Traudl over the conundrum of having to disobey Adolph for the first time in order to die with him in the bunker. Matthias Habich provides a jolt of common sense and decency as Haase, horrified to wander into an abandoned hospital and find scores of elderly staring silently back. He embodies the audiences' sense of disbelief in the sheer madness going on around him. Thomas Kretschmann, the 'good' Nazi officer in "The Pianist," here plays the truly sleazy opportunist SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler's adjutant and Eva Braun's brother-in-law.  Michael Mendl gives the film its closest approximation of comic relief with his ironic line readings.  Heino Ferch paints Speer as something of an aristocratic outsider, the 'artist' among the artillery.

"Downfall" is a spine-chilling experience, a masterpiece of filmmaking and a document which conclusively damns the repetition of its history.

A+

Robin:
We were given the opportunity to review the DVD release of the German-produced film about Adolph Hitler and the Nazi German Third Reich’s last days during World War 2. This masterpiece film (and I don’t say that often) is supplemented with an excellent director’s narration, cast and crew interviews and an hour-long making-of segment that, alone, could well be worth the price of admission for the DVD of Downfall.”

Laura had seen the film quite a while ago and hasn’t stopped praising it since. She has said that this is a must for me and, after watching the pristine DVD copy, she is 100% correct.

Simply put, the film, “Downfall,” is a masterpiece. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel, with his exceptional cast and crew, has recreated, in great detail and with astounding accuracy, the account of the final days of Hitler, masterfully played by Bruno Ganz, and the fall of Nazi Germany. Shown through the eyes of the Fuehrer’s young stenographer Traudl Junge, also well played by Alexandra Maria Lara, we are presented with the delusion that overcame Hitler and the fanaticism, insanity, heroism, cowardice, and gut-wrenching drama that were the reason for the Nazi leader and his nation’s downfall.

The single-disk DVD of “Downfall” contains a brilliant print of the 156-minute film – this is one of those extraordinarily rare films that I did not want to end – including the eloquent English language commentary by its director. Oliver Hirschbiegel combines historical perspective, production information and observations about various scenes that is relaxed, almost off the cuff, but is richly detailed with lots of interesting info about Hitler’s final days.

Also included with the disc set are interviews with the cast, director, screenwriter, providing some candid observations on the source material – the cast, led by Ganz, is easily the best I have seen in a long time and works on every, even the most minor, level – and an extended featurette, The Making of “Downfall.”

As a World War 2 amateur history buff, especially regarding Hitler and Germany, I was very attentive to even the minutest details of accuracy in “Downfall.” Hirschbiegel and company have done their homework well and provide an honest and truthful look into a world of delusion as Hitler turned his back on the German people who had, quite literally, bled themselves to death for their Feurher. The Making of featurette discusses the decision to shoot the film in Petersberg, Russia, the similarities of that city to 1945 Berlin, and the difficulties of such a complex, large-scale production. This is a story that needed to be told by Germans and that it, too, needed to be accurate beyond reproach. The film, along with the DVD extras, does this need justice.

One point repeatedly made by Hirschbiegel, the film’s scripter, Bernd Eichinger, and many of the excellent cast is that Hitler and his henchmen may have been heinous, monstrous murderers but they were also human beings. There was nothing extraordinary or super human about these men, aside from their conviction for world domination and elimination of the Jews and other undesirables,” and the film shows their all too ordinary ambitions of greed, wealth and power.

One interview, with Melissa Muller, the co-author of Bis zur letzten Stunde, the memoirs of Traudl Junge, offers other insights on bringing the amazing story to the screen. She tells, for example, that Junge was married to and widowed by Hitler’s manservant who volunteered for the Russian front rather than remain amidst the insanity that befell the highest level of the Third Reich.

Downfall,” along with the well-done additional special features, is a must-see film especially on entertainment centers for flat screen TVs or for anyone who considers themselves a history buff, a film junkie or both. I happen to be both and give “Downfall” an A+ and the DVD set an A.

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