Downfall


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+


Laura's Review: A-

'What do you do when you're not sure?' begins Father Flynn's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Sunday sermon as Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) sternly parades the pews to chastise those elementary school children who dare to not pay attention. It is the nun, though, who rationalizing her intuition and experience will condemn the priest for actions she cannot prove and for which she will later express "Doubt." Writer/director John Patrick Shanley ("Joe Versus the Volcano") adapts his Tony and Pulitzer Prize award winning play for the big screen with two powerhouse actors assuming the lead roles and it is a richly satisfying, often surprisingly comical cinematic experience. Streep (in the role Cherry Jones won a Tony for), the queen of accents, assumes a flat Bronx voice for her purse-lipped disciplinarian and her sly performance is a hoot. Seymour Hoffman walks the fine line that Shanley intended keep Father Flynn ambiguous - like Sister James (Amy Adams, "Enchanted") we want to believe in his innocence, but the little 'tells' Hoffman subtlely drops are disturbing. It is 1964 at St. Nicholas parish and as Father Flynn prepares for mass, we note the prominently placed bottle of altar wine that is half empty. Donald Miller (Joseph Foster, "Twelve and Holding"), a young black altar boy, asks his partner, one of the white boys of their Irish/Italian American neighborhood, "Do you think I'm fat?," an odd question. Shanley is sowing the seeds of his intensely thought-provoking drama almost subliminally, before his audience has barely begun to pay attention. On the following morning, a school day, Sister Aloysius watches as her school's classes line up. Later, at dinner, the principal asks her fellow nuns to keep an eye on Father Flynn as she has reason to suspect him of wrongdoing. When he calls Donald Miller from Sister James's class and the boy returns upset, Sister James reports the news to her Mother Superior. Father Flynn is called to meet with the two nuns with an agenda on the upcoming Christmas Pageant, but is cornered with questions about the Miller boy, who had alcohol on his breath when returned to Sister James. Flynn resents the questions, but supplies an answer that convinces Sister James. Sister Aloysius is another matter. Shanley's work is beautifully structured, using Father Flynn's sermons to respond to Sister Aloysius's accusations (his sermon on gossip employs a terrific parable), and Sister Aloysius's pet peeves (Cough drops, ball point pens, sugar, "Frosty the Snowman") to underscore her intolerance. Sister James, an innocent and naive young nun, is the tool with which the author explores both sides of Aloysius's character. Sister James is very aware of the human kindnesses Aloysius takes pains to obscure, and yet is very well aware of the elder nun's severity. Aloysius will be recognized by any Catholic School survivor, attaining respect through fear and obedience through cunning trickeries. Both skills are used for her vendetta on Flynn. 'It's my job to outshine the fox in cleverness' she tells Sister James, Shanley winkingly connoting convent as hen house. There is a power struggle between the two houses as well, and Shanley shows up their differences at dinner - austere in the convent, raucous in the rectory, where smoking, drinking and jokes are the norm. Double entendre dialogue is skillfully used. Discussing an elderly nun's tumble in the courtyard, Sister Aloysius observes 'Nuns fall you know - it's the habit,' a statement which, of course, could pertain to her crusade. Wind is a symbolic presence throughout, the storminess designating both the ugliness in the Catholic Church that would be revealed decades later and the winds of change sweeping through it. As obvious as it is, it works, whereas Shanley should have excised some less elegant metaphors involving a cat and mouse and the light bulb that goes out in Sister Aloysius's office. The acting could not be improved upon. Streep's performance has been criticized by the industry's Variety, but her choices never seem false. Her Aloysius is a calculating, complex character. Streep manages to make her funny without betraying the serious stakes at hand. Most importantly, Streep shows us Aloysius's vulnerability and hesitations - she sometimes lacks conviction when her old ways are challenged (adding a secular song to the pageant) and at other times remains utterly assured. The almost offhand revelation that Aloysius was once married is a bombshell in Streep's hands, one that makes us reevaluate everything. Hoffman is perfection as the genial neighborhood priest who acts like a pal to the school kids. He colludes with Tommy Conroy (Paulie Litt, "Speed Racer") as the lad sits outside the principal's office and comforts Donald Miller when a bully upends his books. And yet. Flynn tells Aloysius that their parish should regard them as friendlier, that they should take the kids out for ice cream once in a while, but when he adds taking the boys for a camping trip, alarm bells ring. Watch him in his final sparring match with Streep - when confronted baldly with her accusation, the actor says 'No' with such conviction that you may not even notice his head nodding up and down. Support is equally strong. In lesser hands, Sister James could be nothing but a plot device, but Amy Adams gives the nun depth. She is wide-eyed and sweet, but no pushover. Viola Davis ("Nights in Rodanthe"), who made a strong impression with only one scene as a grieving mother in "World Trade Center," does it again here as Mrs. Miller, a woman willing to compromise in a no win situation. Production values are terrific, the Bronx parish in the dawn of winter gray and yet inviting. Period details like the intercom system and the food served at school are note perfect. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins ("No Country for Old Men") captures the early morning convent in the painterly light of a Rembrandt or Vermeer and combines the classic Dutch angle with his camera positioned from below when Flynn is first directly confronted. He's not working with majestic landscapes, but Deakins's work is some of the very best of the year. "Doubt" is a fine adaptation, an endlessly intriguing film of small moments adding up to a big emotional and intellectual impact. It is a smart movie about serious issues that goes down like Aloysius's resented spoonful of sugar.