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Downfall   A

Newmarket Films / Constantin Film

Year Released: 2004 (USA: 2005)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writer: Bernd Eichinger
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel.

Review by Rob Vaux

One of cinema's great powers is to invoke a specific time or place -- to recreate historical circumstance and give the audience the feeling of standing in the midst of it. Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, which arrives on DVD this week, is first and foremost an exemplary demonstration of this power. In depicting the last 10 days in the life of Nazi Germany, it lends unparalleled insight into a regime that stands as the very definition of human evil. But more importantly, it refuses to distance us from that evil, forcing us to acknowledge the ringleaders' personal frailties without diminishing the unspeakable atrocities that they committed. The results stand as one of the best historical dramas of recent years.

Much has been made about the film's "softening" of Adolf Hitler, played here by Bruno Ganz. Downfall depicts him through the eyes of his secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), a naive young woman who first meets der Führer in 1942 and sees only a kindly old man who loves dogs. Three years later, with the Red Army baying at the gates, pieces of that impression remain intact. Hitler receives dignitaries for his birthday party, compliments his cook on her wonderful meals, and speaks wistfully with Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) about the "treasure house of art and culture" that he intended to make Berlin. It all seems strangely typical, even banal: any leader could go through such motions on any day of his reign. Even the shells that fall upon the city center seem part of another world, which couldn't possibly affect the one we see.

Hirschbiegel's genius lies in slowly pulling aside that calm facade to reveal the lunacy beneath: the apocalyptic shrieks of the Third Reich in its final spasms. Hitler orders nonexistent armies to the forefront while muttering curses about traitors and cowards that soon explode into full-bore rants. Some of his underlings seek ways to escape Berlin, while others make ready to euthanize their children, convinced that a world without National Socialism isn't worth experiencing. Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler in a standout performance) treats the end as a grand party, madly fiddling while the flames grow higher. All of it comes beneath the steady drumbeat of Russian artillery and the sense that the noose is tightening in all directions. The claustrophobia of Hitler's bunker, where he and his entourage flee to wait out the end, is exquisitely realized, juxtaposed by brief, harrowing journeys to the hellish streets of Berlin. One environment is seen as the sole relief from the other, until it slowly dawns on us how inescapable the trap has become.

Yet the surreal atmosphere -- brittle attempts at normalcy plastered over blood-red chaos -- is neither blind nor without purpose. Having established the ordinary qualities of his characters, Hirschbiegel then allows allows them, one by one, to struggle with their legacy to the world. The evil they have committed comes leaking out, not in grandiose gestures, but in quiet, almost shockingly casual statements of unbridled hate. Hitler's bile arises without focus or reason: attacking the Jews and turncoat members of his staff, but saving the choicest barbs for Germany itself. The country he professed to love so much is cast thoughtlessly aside, as he refuses to make accommodations for Berlin's civilian population or allow for the evacuation of the wounded. Other supporting characters slowly surrender to their demons as well; some by eating a gun barrel, others by clinging to the delusion that the Führer will miraculously save them.

Together, they create a portrait not only of the insanity of National Socialism, but of the understandable and almost coolly logical way that an entire nation could be seized by it. In its death throes, we see how its madness can become commonplace and how anyone of sufficient charisma can excuse the most brutal crimes. There are no easy answers in Downfall, and it doesn't coddle us by pretending that another Hitler isn't possible. Ganz's performance has not an ounce of caricature to it. It's as real and believable as any historical figure yet put on film, and it pulls no punches by asking us to identify with him even as the consequences of his unspeakable crimes finally catch up to him. The remainder of Downfall is equally unflinching, and never subverts our fascination by offering any reassurance. In the end, with the final surrender in motion and the previously unseen Russian enemy making their first appearance, the feeling is one of total catharsis -- a long stare into an abyss from which no comforting answers can emerge.

Review published 07.31.2005.

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