Downfall - "Der Untergang"
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.