A Nurse with a Gun

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Downfall - "Der Untergang"

For civilized people, the murderous repugnancy of the Third Reich tends to make one want to look away whenever this evil chapter in human history is opened. Never the less, it is a chapter, and if anything is going to be gained by opening it, it is imperative that the depravity and perversion be illuminated in the non-judgemental light of accuracy. Click to order from Amazon.comThis is what the German film "Der Untergang" does.

Released in 2004, "Der Untergang" is a factual account of the last days of Hitler's Germany. It draws heavily on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Adolph Hitler's personal secretary. The film begins with her hiring in the fall of 1942, and quickly advances to April, 1945. The remainder of the film takes place in and around the claustrophobic Führerbunker, located underneath the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. It condenses into a time span from Hitler's 56th birthday on April 20th, 1945, to his suicide on April 30th, and a couple of days beyond.

The Russians are relentlessly advancing towards the bombed out skeleton that was once Berlin. Germany's military machine has been severely crippled and is facing total annihilation. Officials of the Third Reich are forced to chose between loyalty to a disconnected and delusional leader, capture by a merciless enemy or a chance to escape as a fugitive for life. Choices are made, and heavy prices are paid, both for loyalty and treason, as Adolph Hitler refuses to surrender or listen to reason. Above ground, artillery is exploding. There is virtually nothing left to lead, other than a few conscripted children in Nazi Youth uniforms, young women in ill fitting greatcoats, and old men hastily given weapons and discarded uniforms. Vigilantes prowl the blackened and debris filled streets, hanging those who refuse to take up arms and placing makeshift traitor signs on the strung up corpses.

Below ground, Bruno Ganz is a demented and delusional yet somehow fatherly Hilter. Ganz prepared for the role using the only known recording of Adolf Hitler in a private conversation with Field Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim of Finland. Recordings of Adolf Hitler speaking are nearly all of him giving speeches to large crowds. His normal speaking voice was quite different. Bruno Ganz also studied Parkinsons patients in a Swiss hospital to prepare for his role as Hitler. His gait and pill rolling hand motions are utterly convincing. While some may desire the abbreviation of the fatherly aspect of Hitler's personality, doing away with it turns him into a caricature. The inclusion of the fatherly aspect only serves to magnify the maniacal and deranged hubris of a despot facing his inevitable defeat.

Like a modern Marie Antoinette, Juliane Kohler becomes Eva Braun, a glassy eyed nut job, first wanting to jitterbug on her grave as Berlin crumbles above the tomb of a bunker, then finally accepting her fate as the concubine of the world's foremost mass murderer. Nazi Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels depicted by Ulrich Mattes, and his wife Magda played by Corinna Harfouch, display the true sinister and obscene evil of the Nazi party. "I feel no sympathy …. The German people chose their fate," sneers Mattes as a heinous politico from beneath a brown peaked cap. Meanwhile, his wife is planning the execution of their six children, believing they are "too good for what will come."

As a screenplay, "Der Untergang" is a tragedy only because most of the primary characters commit suicide. It is a reminder that victory for one country is defeat for another. While one society is jubilant, another society, along with it's people, suffers and perishes. Just as the film begins with Traudl Junge's hiring as a secretary, it ends with her escape as a refugee. Thankfully, the curtain closes with a metaphorical ray of hope towards the return of civilization for a people who were deprived of it for over a decade.

As a film, "Der Untergang" knows few peers. It is a deviant and pathological "Band of Brothers". I could not help but be reminded of the World Trade Center as I watched papers flutter to the ground outside the Reich Chancellery. The imagery may have been unintentional, but it was an irrevocable and unwanted visual association, regardless. The result was profound introspection. "Der Untergang" portrays the absolute savage debauchery of war while attempting to illuminate with historical accuracy the mystery of what occurred in the Führerbunker beneath Berlin. In many ways, it is a purging of a poisonous bile for the German people. It blitzkrieged to the top of the German box office. Almost half a million tickets were sold in its opening weekend. It pulled in 480,000 viewers in its first four days despite poor reviews. It was the catharsis the German people had been long denied.

As a United States released DVD, "Downfall" has a few problems. Characters who may be quickly recognized by Germans are not so easily recognized by people in the United States. Many of the generals and other uniformed cronies are nameless and appear the same. It is only later in the film that the identities of critical people are realized. It would have been very helpful and informative had the DVD contained a visual primer for the uninitiated. Perhaps a special features menu with simple photos of the characters and a historical description of their place in the Nazi regime.

Obviously, the film is in the German language. Subtitles are provided. They are, however, rather diminutive on the small screen, and they flash by rapidly to keep pace with the dialogue. As a result, I found myself pausing the DVD to read them. After I paused to keep up with the dialogue, my wife wanted to examine the architecture and stage sets. A viewer selection for translations into English, possible on a DVD, would have preserved the pace of the film.

Some might think Downfall - "Der Untergang" to be aggrandizement of the Nazi aberration that once strode across Europe. Others may find it to be an atonement for the sins of those they can not disassociate themselves from. I found it to be an arresting blend of historical accuracy and the absolute horror and insanity of war. I am thankful I viewed it from my couch rather than in reality.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen the movie as well. May I say that was a good, personal review.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous The Fudgie Ghost said...

Xaiver: I saw this film when it was released in theaters. I had read "The Bunker" years ago, as well as Speer's "Inside the Third Reich" which also deals, briefly, with Hitler and the others in the bunker during the last days.

As a story it is very compelling, and as history, informative and illuminating. . .The film is terrific. Bruno Ganz's performance is superb. . I loved the scene when the general (not sure which one) finally has had it with Hitler and let's him have it, verbally. Basically tells him he's nuts and full of *&%$. I wanted to cheer--Sometimes all it takes is one brave soul. Hitler had such a spell over people---even battle hardened generals were scared of him. Only when he was dead was this spell broken.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous matt said...

I liked this movie. I didn't have any trouble with the characters but then again I'm a WWII history buff. I'd like a few more Japanese perspective movies.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a movie everyone should see, preferably in a theater for full effect.

I have read many accounts of Germany's and Hitler's end. This film shows real people experiencing the bizarre and surreal last days in an utterly believable way. The historical accuracy is faultless.

One of the best things about this film is the portrayal, as you noted, of Hitler as a real man, and not just the caricature monster we usually see.

Fine job on the review Xavier.

A comparable film is Das Boot (The Boat) about a German U-boat. Get the original version, not the over-long director's cut.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Joseph said...

"Soldat" (Soldier), a book by Siegfried Knappe, has some interesting takes on the last days of Hitler during the Battle of Berlin. The first part of the book is dedicated to this. Knappe was a junior officer of the German General Staff and so had some real inside perspective. Interestingly, I belive Knappe is still alive, a naturalized American living in Ohio...and one of a very few living persons to have actually met Hitler in his last days.

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

I thought this movie was spectacular, brilliant, amazing, and enlightening.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Err Xav? Premier mass murderer?

Ok, I think by 1945 he had probably outdone Napoleon and perhaps Ghengis, but was way behind Uncle Joe, even at that stage. I think Mao was possibly getting close to the 15M mark by that time too...

I certainly want to watch this film, and don't get me wrong, I despise all extreme politics (lets face it, Hitler's Nazis, Japan's fascist generals, and Communist parties/ insurgencies the world over are all pretty simillar in there prejudices and murderous habits).

In Hitler's regime we have the advantage of having militarily crushed it and then crimminally investigated it. We therefore have some idea of what it did.

Simon Wiessental's successors are still keeping up the good work of trying to bring the remaining Nazi crimminals to trial. Let us hope they get pleanty more of those old men before a judge and jury. I don't want any of those or any other murdering sadists to get a single nights sleep, for fear of being brought to justice.

Outside Hitler's regime we have little idea of what went on in China, the USSR, Tibet, East Turkestan or any of the other places "liberated" by extremist's thugs.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Ride Fast said...

Excellent review, very well done. Thanks for posting it.

It's kind of strange how I feel I must see this film and at the same time I don't want to see any more human monsters.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is the only movie where I have seen the Sturmgewhr Stg 44 assault rifle used. Some scenes show bunker guards equipped with the "worlds first assault rifle" Nice attention to detail by the filmaker. It is shown only sporadically. Since it was a highly prized by too few produced (thankfully) weapon introduced on the Eatern Front in 1944.

6:33 PM  
Blogger phlegmfatale said...

I have ever been besotted with Bruno Ganz, and although I tend to see more foreign/indie cinema than domestic, I have put off seeing this film because I dread the transformation in one of my film idols. I spose it's time to cowgirl up and watch it anyhoo. It does look stunning, and I've heard marvelous things about this film.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most important thing about this film is that it puts a human face to history. Hitler isn't some distant cartoon nutter, he was a real man like you and me. That is the true horror. They weren't monsters. They were people.

9:44 AM  
Blogger raul said...

can you help me getting the name of Illse? is the girl thar apears in the picture with the uniform

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Gadget Nerd said...

Illse(whose actually character name is Inge) is played by Yelena Zelenskaya

7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

best war movie ever.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous 8472 said...

Very well written review.

One of the best WWII movies I've ever seen, if not one of the best movies in general period. It's incredibly underrated from a lot of what I've seen.

I'm American and I knew who the characters were, though I can see how someone who doesn't share my fascination with Nazi Germany would be in the dark.

3:39 AM  

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