Movie review: 'Downfall'

4 stars (out of 4)

"The banality of evil" was the phrase Hannah Arendt used to describe the mindset of Germany's death camp culture during World War II, and it perfectly fits the theme and subject of the new German film "Downfall." Few movies indeed have ever more completely conveyed Arendt's juxtaposition of the evil that sent millions to their graves with the stultifying banality of their murderers' lives.

It's an extraordinarily gripping and important work, taking us deep inside a 20th Century hell that continues to fascinate us. To do this, director Oliver Hirschbeigel and producer-screenwriter Bernd Eichinger use primary historical sources as they set their action mostly inside Adolf Hitler's concrete Berlin fortress-bunker during the 10 days before his suicide and the collapse of the so-called Thousand Year Reich.

Within the bunker, the twitching, explosive Hitler (Bruno Ganz) and his retinue—including Eva Braun (Juliane Koehler), Joseph and Magda Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch), and the generals and admirals fighting the hopeless war raging outside in the streets of Berlin—stage a last mad charade, with Hitler concocting impossible military orders and falling into mad tantrums. Finally, he succumbs to the inevitable with a horrifying mixture of courtliness and brutality, a fiend trying to play a tragic hero and taking his world with him.

Outside, we see a city in flames and rubble, guarded by fanatical children (the Hitler Youth) and bands of S.S. thugs rounding up and killing deserters or "cowards." In abandoned hospitals, old patients huddle fearfully on their beds, while in the mansions, a few last bacchanalian revels are staged by fading orgiasts of the "master race." Death, which is everywhere, obsesses both Hitler and the Goebbelses, firm in their conviction that, by now, the beaten German people "deserve" this end. Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, drops in briefly, to bring bad news to his mentor, and the insanely ebullient Eva Braun stages parties and tries to raise spirits, as Hitler keeps ordering executions, including those of his generals (later rescinded) his dog and finally himself.

This is a great subject. And, despite flaws, "Downfall," given the magnitude of the cultural task it accomplishes and the brilliance of many of its parts, should probably be called a great film. Other movies, including G.W. Pabst's 1955 German film "The Last Ten Days," have tackled this subject in the same time frame, but never with "Downfall's" thoroughness or insistence on historical accuracy, striving for both external versimilitude and internal dramatic truth.

Hirschbeigel and Eichinger base their scenario very closely on two 2002 German best-sellers: "Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich" by Joachim Fest and "Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary," the personal account of Hitler's last secretary, Traudl Junge. The latter, subject of last year's documentary "Blind Spot," is a major character in this film (played by Alexandra Maria Lara). Some have criticized the real-life Junge, a woman oblivious until far too late of the horrible reality around her, but, as in real life, she is redeemed by the value of the witness she gives, the reality she recaptures.

The movie's re-creation of war-torn Berlin—most of which, ironically, was reproduced in St. Petersburg, with Russian citizens as extras—is massive and convincing. The acting, from top to bottom, is exemplary, not just in the main roles, but in the impeccable support offered by major German actors like Thomas Kretschmann (Hosenfeld in Polanski's "The Pianist") as Braun's dissolute brother-in-law Hermann Fegelein, the Jewish actor Christian Berkel as beleaguered, duty-bound Dr. Schenck, Ulrich Noethen as an obsequious Heinrich Himmler and Donevan Gunia as Peter, a 12-year-old Hitler Youth warrior caught in the last conflagration. The visualization around them all, which includes meticulous design by Bernd Lepel, photography by Rainer Klausmann and Steadicam shooting by Tilman Buttner ("Run Lola Run," "Russian Ark") seems almost perfect.

If there's a major objection to "Downfall," it is that its look and qualities smack of a first-rate TV docudrama rather than a great cinema epic, that Hirschbiegel's direction lacks lyricism and elegance. But Hirschbiegel, a specialist in detective dramas, has different strengths: dramatic clarity, intelligence and sweeping perspective. Given its goals, it's hard to imagine the film being made much better.

In re-creating the tale so intimately, though, the filmmakers have been attacked within and outside Germany, charged with unwisely humanizing Hitler and other Nazis and making it too possible to sympathize with them.

Is that true? Certainly, Swiss-German Bruno Ganz, the actor who plays Hitler, makes the role startlingly real. With his sad eyes, matted hair and thick Austrian accent, Ganz makes Hitler a monstrous but also vulnerable man, crazy and seductive, murderous and gentle, oozing a strange sweetness that makes his deadly rages all the more chilling. We can understand why this man seduced a country—while at the same time we remain appalled by the insane loyalties he inspires up to end, as with Magda Goebbels (unforgettably acted by Harfouch), who soberly, terrifyingly kills her own children.

Ganz gives a great performance. Taking an almost impossible assignment, he makes Hitler real. He creates on screen a believable world tyrant and madman, instead of the usual raving caricature. Conveying the humanity of this archetypal historical butcher was precisely his most important task, just as conveying the events in the bunker and in Berlin was the movie's. Both accomplished them.

Indeed, unless we fully understand that horror can emanate not just from obvious villains but from destructive but plausible human beings capable of inspiring sympathy and devotion, as Hitler was, we remain vulnerable to the rants and prejudices of the next seductive historical monster, open to the next Gotterdammerung. "Downfall," whatever its shortcomings, bears strong witness to great evil. That is its triumph as a film.

"Downfall" ("Der Untergang")

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel; written by Bernd Eichinger, based on the books "Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich" by Joachim Fest and "Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary" by Traudl Junge and Melissa Mueller; photographed by Rainer Klausmann; steadicam operator Tilman Buttner; edited by Hans Funck; production designed by Bernd Lepel; music by Stephan Zacharias; produced by Bernd Eichinger. In German, with English subtitles. A Newmarket Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:28. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing images and some nudity).

Adolf Hitler - Bruno Ganz
Traudl Junge - Alexandra Maria Lara
Eva Braun - Juliane Koehler
Joseph Goebbels - Ulrich Matthes
Magda Goebbels - Corinna Harfouch
Albert Speer - Heino Ferch
Dr. Schenck - Christian Berkel
Hermann Fegelein - Thomas Kretschmann
Heinrich Himmler - Ulrich Noethen

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