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10 February 2006

Downfall (2004)

Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Corinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Juliane Köhler (Eva Braun)

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Language: German

From IMDB: "As the Russians advance through Berlin in the spring of 1945, Adolf Hitler and his remaining military and secretarial staff shelter in his large bunker complex in the center of the city. His mood swings between unjustified optimism and rage against the incompetence and betrayal of his military commanders. Reality starts to break through and the Führer and the others in the bunker start to make their final personal preparations for the inevitable." Based on books by Traudl Junge and Joachim Fest.

This is a fantastic movie. The subject matter is not light, but the two hours flew past me as with few other historical films. Dozens of characters lent speed to the narrative, in that numerous opinions, personalities, and outcomes had to be presented in a manner substantial enough to merit time against larger, more recognizable names. Hitler's death was portrayed, surely, but so were the fates of various generals, associates, junior soldiers, a member of Hitler's youth, and even his personal chef. During a few information-laden opening scenes in which we are introduced to the film's players, I felt a sense of overload, matching historic names to actors' faces and trying to tell all of those prominently chisled Aryan faces apart.

However, Hirschbiegel did a masterful job of providing unique traits for all of the film's subjects, revealing their connections to the Führer through conversational clues and observations from their points of view. For example, we see Berlin, in all of its chaotic, hopeless ruin, through the eyes of Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel) as he tries to maintain the last of his medical professionalism. The wounded, the elderly, and the despairing citizens of Berlin are framed through his human eyes as he breaks with many of the dogmatic, totalitarian ideas spouted by Hitler's few remaining stalwarts. He stands compassionately against continued self-deception and Hitler's fruitless resistance in the face of the Russians' inevitable advance.

The movie also presents these last few days of conflict as processed in the minds of three women. How often has any story of WWII been told from the female perspective, other than, perhaps, POW stories like Paradise Road? I cannot think of substantial examples, but the stories of Junge, Braun, and Goebbels, in their final days, are revealed with frankness and blunt detail, as are their opinions about Hitler and the war. Harfouch and Köhler, as Goebbels and Braun, were especially fascinating and intense in their portrayals.

Goebbels is revealed as one of Hitler's most staunch supporters, begging him, in his final moments of life, to flee Berlin and sustain the Reich. She cannot imagine a life without Nazi rule, to the point where suicide is the only remaining option. However, before allowing her husband to end her life, Goebbels tranquilized her six young children - all under the age of 12 - and then killed them with cyanide capsules. The murder scene is particularly disturbing because of Harfouch's rigid, determined face, and because - in covering their lifeless faces with their blankets - she left their bare feet exposed to the cold. Mothers protect their children; they do not leave their toes outside of blankets, let alone murder them. Her frigid self-posession was like physical manifestations of her devotion to Hitler.

Köhler's portrayal of Eva Braun was equally worthy, turning an initially flippant and flighty character into one of much more complexity. I do not remember learning of Hitler and the Holocaust when I was younger; some facts of history predate my awareness of having learned them. In my mind, I have always known about World War II. However, I do remember a distinctly uneasy and confused moment when I learned that Hitler had a wife. How unthinkable! The man perpetrated genocide and stands in history a human synonym to the Devil. Marriage is about love, fidelity, and the foundation of family. How could Hitler have a wife? What was she thinking?

Perhaps, through history, I have not been the only one to find Eva Braun's existence startling and curious, repulsive even. Köhler's Braun is wonderfully impenetrable. She is lose and lascivious. She is devoted to Hitler. She hates his dog. She killed herself on his say-so. These contradictions make for an opaque, mysterious woman. Who was she? What was she thinking? Because of her unfathomable role in history, Köhler's multi-faceted portrayal satisfied multiple possibilities: she was mad, in love, brain-washed, along for the ride, and she knew exactly what she was doing. Absolutely captivating acting.

Oh, and Thomas Kretschmann, who I recently saw in The Pianist, is the picture of above-human physical perfection. What a startlingly handsome man, and so charismatic on screen. He deserves better, more consistent roles than Super Babies: Baby Geniuses 2.

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