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Downfall
cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Mathes, Corinna Harfouch, and Thomas Kretschmann

director: Oliver Herschbiegel

149 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 16:9
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Joshua Rainbird
It is the Führer's 56th birthday, Russian forces are 12 kilometres from the heart of Berlin and their artillery is shelling Hitler's bunker. Himmler is planning his escape and Operation Clausewitz is being deployed, a desperate last stand where the German capital is being turned into a fortress-city guarded by scattered units, press-ganged shopkeepers and child-soldiers drafted from the Hitler youth. "In a war like this there are no civilians!" Hitler declares as he prepares for a siege, deluded that a miracle is about to occur.

Taken from eyewitness reports, Downfall (aka: Der Untergang) is a startling revelation, full of surprises that help to demystify the propaganda surrounding Nazi Germany. Unlike Alec Guinness' portrayal in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), which ended with the dictator's death, this film goes further, showing the final ten days of the fascist regime, how the Führer punished the Germans as his enemies advanced and once he had gone, how they eventually surrendered. Told through the eyes of his 22-year-old secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), we see Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) struggling to maintain control of a crumbling empire as he slowly discovers the secrets that his closest allies have kept hidden from him: the generals have been feeding him misleadingly optimistic reports; Göring, leader of the Luftwaffe, challenges his leadership; Speer, his mentor and architect, raises moral objections; but worst of all Himmler, the Nazi archetype, has been negotiating a treaty with Roosevelt. It is this last betrayal he finds the hardest to reconcile. After all, Göring was a drug addict, and Speer had an artistic temperament, but Himmler was like a brother; it was a Judas kiss.

Modern historians are keen to impress that Nazism was a chaotic jumble of competitiveness, where feudal lords tried to curry the favour of a leader who led through ideology rather than policy. Downfall portrays the fragility of such regimes: the middle-classed fanatics, like the Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch), desperately cling onto their ideals whilst opportunists, like Himmler's adjutant and Eva Braun's brother-in-law Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), seek compensation in the last pleasures they can find. Yet other actions could be seen as heroic, if not reckless, General Von Griem flies through air-raids into Berlin at his Führer's request, General Mohnke marches into the bunker to face a firing squad when falsely accused of retreating and Schenck dodges Russian snipers to procure urgent medical supplies. Whatever way one wishes to interpret them, there is more to these acts than 'just following orders'.

The acting performances are superb: Lara plays the naïve secretary with wide-eyed shock but, by Junge's own admission, she was no innocent; naivety does not expunge her of guilt-by-association; Matthes conveys the narcissistic fanaticism of Goebbels, a high priest of Nazism lost in his own vanity, yet content with the opportunity of basking in Hitler's demonic glory; and Harfouch as Madga Goebbels, shows the determination of a mother eager to murder her six children rather than let them grow up in a world bereft of National Socialism. But it is Ganz's Hitler that overshadows them all as he perfectly re-enacts footage from newsreels with a sinister yet eloquent presence. One moment he is sentimental as he delights in children's songs, the next, grimly pinning medals onto a row of boy-soldiers, but he is losing control.

Under increasing pressure from stimulants and frustrated by his imminent defeat the Führer is decaying, albeit defiantly, into a trembling grey shade. He rants at his generals with the fervour of his speeches and forgives the shortcomings of his secretary with a fatherly love. Junge wonders how he could be caring in private and yet publicly so brutal. "Oh, when he's being the Führer," Eva Braun explains. However, Ganz does not portray this duality as a split personality instead he shows it to be flipsides of the same paternalistic coin. Hitler has given his secretary more chances as he has lower expectations of her. In the dichotomy where boys are soldiers-in-waiting and women must serve in the kitchen, a female weakness can be tolerated, occasionally indulged but preferably ignored, whereas males must fight to impress. To display this ambivalence Ganz mimics the dictator's voice based upon an almost forgotten tape-recording of a relaxed Hitler speaking at leisure as well as the numerous rallying speeches. The result is that humanity, with all its harshness, petty forbearances and incongruity resonates throughout the performance.

But the lead roles are not unsupported. Every actor in this film turns in a masterful performance, however small their part, and this pays testament to the sensitivity and perceptiveness of Herschbiegel's direction; it is rare to see in a film that depicts such diversity in roles. Personality shines through each portrayal with depth and integrity, these are complex figures, well-acted, not the cardboard cut-out demons we have painted into our imagination from earlier war-films; these are real people and there's a chilling warning in that knowledge.

The film-set is divided between two worlds: the austere, claustrophobic bunker authentically stocked with its Spartan decoration, and the bleak desolation of the blasted city, the apparent security of the subterranean refuges is frequently undermined by exploding shells and battle-weary soldiers. We see the dead stacked high in makeshift mortuaries and field hospitals huddled with the bloodied and shell-shocked. Assassinations, murder-squads and suicides are on every street corner, and yet amongst this chaos, Eva Braun, a wilting flower in a bomb crater, still finds time to hold a party and sneak in a crafty cigarette when her husband isn't looking. And this is the true austerity of the bunker - that they are holed up together with a stressed-out dictator subjected to his anti-smoking, vegetarian ideals and dodging the salvoes of his explosive, amphetamine-enhanced temperament. The four-walled set has become a prison for the actors and Hitler plans to stay there until the curtain falls. Like Nero, he has plans to rebuild a better capital, a Berlin for the next thousand years, built from the debris of the broken city, now that the Russians have demolished its core.

Herschbiegel has directed the effects well. Only using lighting that would have lit the bunker paints the palate in muffled grey-tones, but not monochrome, it's as if a pall of dislodged plaster has fallen upon the film, but this adds to the bleakness of the set and creates occasional pockets of colour with an authenticity that reminds the viewer of faded newsreels. The explosions are well timed and crisp, rattling and booming through the surround sound. Handheld cameras and clever editing augment the terror of falling shells.

This is an excellent film; well cast, well directed, heavily researched, sensitively handled and crammed packed with authentic details. However, it's also a gripping cautionary tale: far more than any docudrama, it informs, without preaching, that the naive and the ignorant have no excuses. There are shadows lurking within each of us that we should be careful not to indulge.

DVD extras: The Making Of Downfall (one hour): includes numerous brief interviews with the cast talking about the way they empathised with their roles; brief interviews with key crew-members; relevant film clips as illustrations; and occasional archive shots. One criticism is that some of the film clips are not subtitled. Superficially the documentary seems to over-rationalise the way it demands humanity to be portrayed in the characters, however, as it progresses one appreciates the moral challenges that plagued the cast: the scene where Madga Goebbels poisons her children was particularly harrowing whilst another actor is half-Jewish and many of his mother's relatives died in the Shoah. Other features include: an interview of Traudl Junge's biographer - Melissa Müller; a virtual tour of the bunker; various interviews; historical characters and their actors; production crew and director's commentaries on film locations.
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