Friday, April 01, 2005

DER UNTERGANG/THE DOWNFALL - Hitler's bunker recreated

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has created an amazing movie in THE DOWNFALL. It is a masterly recreation of the final days in Hitler's Berlin bunker just before the Soviet invasion. The movie is based on the seminal book by respected historian Joachim Fest, "Inside Hitler's Bunker", and the memoirs of one of Hitler's secretaries, Traudl Junge. These memoirs have also recently been shown as a "talking head" documentary - itself a film of great power.

These sources are interwoven by screen-writer Bernd Eichinger. Eichinger is perhaps better known as a
producer, usually of cheesy popcorn movies, but here he has come up with something insightful and emotionally impactful. His script focuses on myriad characters - from soldiers to secretaries - fawning aristos to bewildered servants - as they mill around the bunker. The atmosphere is claustrophic, thanks to a superlatively designed set and outstanding cinematography from Rainer Klausmann.

Much controversy has attached itself to Bruno Ganz' portrayal of Hitler. To my mind, it is faultless. He does NOT create a "sympathetic" Hitler. Rather he shows a man who alternates between relatively lucid resignation and the more extreme delusional haranguing of his staff. In his resigned state he speaks intimately to friends in a more measured language than we are used to from seeing archive footage of oratorical genius. He seems to know that all is over but - and here is the evil part - blames not himself but the German people for not having the balls to see it through. Hence, his slash and burn policy. In his ranting, savage state he becomes the foaming-at-the-mouth demagogue that we usually picture him as being.

However, strange to say, I found the most affecting parts of the movie to be those that focused on the incidental characters of the story. The reactions of the sane officers to yet more ridiculous orders - the automatic efficiency of the bewildered secretaries - Eva Braun's simple-minded commitment to have a good time. And, for me, the most chilling scene was seeing true believer Magda Goebbels killing her children out of a demented, inverted kind of love.

For all this film's authenticity and bravery, it is not perfect. I felt that in the final ten minutes it reverted to Hollywood-style schmaltz. Whether true or not, the decision to end this grim movie with an image of hope seemed hackneyed and entirely misplaced, despite the evident good intentions of the director.

DER UNTERGANG/THE DOWNFALL opened in Germany in August 2004 and has since been on release in France and Austria. It is on release in the UK.

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