DER UNTERGANG
by James Marshall Crotty
March 2, 2005

"Downfall" ("Der Untergang") is a long, relentless, and vitally important look at the final days inside the fuhrerbunker beneath the Berlin Reich Chancellery. While not a perfect film, "Downfall" makes Crotty's Top 10 Best In World Cinema 2004 because, unlike some over-praised Oscar winners, it will stand the test of time.

Sixty years after the fall of Nazi Germany, we still have scant film coverage of W.W.II from a German perspective. "Downfall" explores only a tiny slice of that era, but it does so with a plodding, crushing tone and pace that perfectly mirrors the mad defeated reality inside that bunker. This is the "Das Boot" of 2005 -- a claustrophobic journey through narrow hallways and tiny rooms that perfectly mirror the convoluted pathways inside one man's brain.

Bruno Ganz's drooping, pathetic, Parkinson's-ridden Hitler vacillates between manic confidence in a miraculous reversal of fortune against the Soviet Red Army pounding away at Berlin's doorstep and full-on despair that his generals and the German people have betrayed him and his quest to build an Aryan Third Reich. Several major players in his grand scheme make appearances in that Berlin bunker, including Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) -- who wants to cut a deal with Ike, not grasping that Hitler will never surrender -- to the ineffectual, almost effete, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes).

However, two characters capture the competing views of Hitler best: one stays with Hitler, the other deserts. Magda Goebbels -- played to brilliant multi-layered effect by Corinna Harfouch in the best supporting actress performance of 2004 -- is the only one of Hitler's closest devotees to completely buy into his vision to the suicidal end. There is no history "in a world without National Socialism," she says cooly, and then shows her devotion by committing -- in the most harrowing scene from any film from 2004 -- the ultimate sin that a mother can commit.

By contrast, in the subtle restraint and weary, disbelieving eyes of Nazi grand architect Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) we see the realization of almost everyone else in that bunker that not only had their beloved Fuhrer become delusional, but the whole project they had embarked upon was not some transcendent truth, but, rather, the absurd by-product of one man's demonic imagination.

Still, though they know their leader to be crazy, and their grand project to be a sham, many of those around Hitler express their dying allegiance to a man they barely know. This cult-like devotion is the great mystery that, unfortunately, "Downfall" does not fully address. In one revealing scene, Hitler's stenographer, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), from whose perspective the film is largely seen, is listening to the normally -- if maniacally -- effervescent Eva Braun bitterly complain that after fifteen years with Hitler she barely knows him ("He's changed so much. He only talks about dogs and vegetarian meals."). Junge remarks that her boss can be so kind and considerate, and then suddenly say the most horrific things. To which Braun replies with a mad smile, "That's because he's the Fuhrer." The deranged look in Braun's eyes suggests that, like the man she adores, she too is split between the human and the monstrous, between being a wife on equal footing, and just another acolyte, cowed by this frail, but still frightening, figure of world-historical importance. Is she emblematic only of those closest to Hitler, or representative of the schism within the German people as a whole? That is a crucial question that a film with such limited, if disciplined, focus cannot fully address. But it is a question that remains to be answered.

To tackle that question, we must wait for a properly financed German production that addresses the entire era from Hitler's youth to his rise to power to his dénouement. American treatments of Nazi history, while more cinematic due to our larger film budgets, are invariably one-sided, as if it would be grossly insensitive to give a human face to the Nazis. In almost all American film treatments, the Germans are caricatures, not real people. Naturally, this makes them easier to demonize, but does not provide a deeper appreciation of how a highly civilized nation could descend so precipitously into utter barbarism.

By contrast, "Downfall" humanizes Hitler and his inner circle, without trivializing their crimes. In Hitler's frank familiarity with certain male commanders, and in his tender treatment of certain women, you get the sense that this intimate circle might even consist of a few long-standing friends; men and women who did more than live and breathe National Socialism, but who shared humor and honest reflection alongside dreams of world domination.

But those moments are very few and very fleeting. In the end, Hitler cannot be easily humanized because, in fact, he was a man who consciously and systematically excised almost all human feeling from his heart, including any care at all for the suffering of the German people, for whom he allegedly launched his grand project.

Is there a danger that such a realistic portrait of Hitler will elicit sympathy for the man? Certainly. But rather than strengthening Hitler's appeal, such a portrait will destroy it forever. Hiding out in the shadows of our subconcious, Hitler retained a mythical power. Now, thanks to "Downfall," he's been exposed in all his gauche, self-pitying, all-too-human frailty, reducing him and his mad vision to the ash heap of history.

This time at German hands.

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