Michael Mendl

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Downfall Review


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Is it possible to make a film about Hitler and his regime's final days without humanizing the Nazis? Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (Der Untergang) proves to be a harrowing recreation of the Nazi elite's last stand trapped underground by the encroaching Red Army, but on the issue of depicting its notorious cast of characters - and the gangs all here, from Hitler and the Goebbells family to Himmler, Eva Braun, Albert Speer, and Hermann Fegelein - the film is unable to avoid sentimentalizing what is, for most of the modern world, a distinctly unsentimental moment in 20th century history. One can recognize the dramatic necessity of attempting to portray such monsters with more than a blunt brushstroke, and often, Hirschbiegel's impressively expansive drama (adapted by Bernd Eichinger from both Joachim Fest's Inside Hitler's Bunker and Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller's Until the Final Hour) eerily captures the hysterical, delusional fanaticism that gripped the Nazis - and Hitler in particular - up until the very end of April 1945. But if the sight of crying Nazis and "brave" SS soldiers is the price to be paid for such a riveting portrait, one must wonder if this well-intentioned enterprise - the first German-produced film to directly confront Hitler in nearly 50 years - doesn't sabotage its own portrait of the appalling empire's collapse.

After a brief prologue that finds Hitler (Bruno Ganz) choosing Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) - the woman who would later become the subject of the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary - as his secretary, Hirschbiegel's film whisks us away to 1945 Berlin, where der Fuhrer and company are vainly attempting to keep the Aryan dream alive from a concrete bunker deep underneath the battle-ravaged city. Hitler remains convinced, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the war remains winnable, and Ganz - an actor whose strength is usually found in contemplative silence - superbly brings the horrific fascist to maniacal life, balancing an exhausted, stooped posture and twitching left hand (always held behind his back) with sudden delusional tirades of mouth-frothing madness. Surrounded by increasingly cynical military officers, an unrepentant Hitler is agitated, desperate, and unable to relinquish the belief that his Nazi army will re-mobilize for a final, fatal strike against the Russians. Meanwhile, absurd and surreal last-gasp mini-dramas play out throughout the bunker, from Junge and her fellow secretary's attempts to remain optimistic and Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) and Heinrich Himmler's (Ulrich Noethen) eventual desertions to, most chillingly, Magda (Corinna Harfouch) and Joseph Goebbels' (Ulrich Matthes) plans to exterminate their six children should National Socialism crumble.

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Michael Mendl

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