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Film Review - Downfall (2004)
The last days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker at the end of World War Two, has been discussed many times in books and in documentaries. This movie is the first serious attempt by a German director to tackle this most sensitive aspect of his country's history in a dramatised account.
'Downfall' is a study of life in the bunker and the surrounding streets as the Russians are closing in. It is not so much about the details of the end of the war, though that of course is covered; rather, this is a story about desperate people in very desperate circumstances, and how they each find their own solution to the question of what to do when defeat becomes inevitable.
- 'Downfall' is presented in the German language, and subtitled in English. But please do not let this put you off watching what is a moving and powerful drama.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
'Downfall' begins in the forest near Rastenburg in East Prussia (Poland) where Adolf Hitler had his Eastern Front headquarters, nicknamed the 'Wolf's Lair', throughout most of the war. It is November 1942. Five young women are auditioning for the role of Hitler's personal secretary. They wait nervously for the Führer to emerge from his office, and when he does, one by one they are introduced him. Hitler quickly makes his decision; he chooses 22 year old Traudl Humps, largely, it seems, on the basis that she is a Munich girl.
This brief scene is merely a way of introducing Hitler in happier times (for him) and the character of Traudl, upon whose book, this film was partly based. Immediately, the scene changes to 20th April 1945, and Berlin. It is Hitler's 56th birthday, but hardly an occasion for celebration even in his offices in Berlin. Two and a half years has seen Hitler's tyranny and mismanagement of his armed forces bring the country to its knees. The Russians are shelling the city from just 12 kilometres distant. Official documents are being burned, chaos rules as Nazi officials are leaving the ruins, and soldiers are desperately trying to defend their posts. And Hitler is in his bunker.
What follows is a portrayal of Hitler's increasing desperation and confused grasp on reality. All around him are generals who view this situation developing and don't know whether to loyally follow, or to ignore his commands. Also in the bunker are other attendants including Traudl Junge (in the three years since 1942, Traudl had been married to, and been widowed from, Hans Hermann Junge - a soldier killed in France in 1944). And the six children of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels also arrive.
If life in the bunker is difficult, at least they are shielded from the full horror and carnage of the streets above, where SS Colonel and Doctor Ernst-Gunther Schenck watches the misery of destruction and futile slaughter unfold around him.
The film covers the events of the next two weeks, notably the suicides of Hitler and Eva Braun, and of Joseph Goebbels and his wife, and the murder of their children. Other characters also choose suicide as a way out, whilst some try to negotiate surrender, escape detection, or just carry on and see what fate befalls them when the Russians finally move in. The Battle of Berlin ended on 2nd May. The unconditional surrender of all German forces occurred on 7th May.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Alexandra Maria Lara
FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Oliver Hirschbiegel
Joachim Fest, Traudl Junge, Melissa Muller (books)
Bernd Eichinger (screenplay)
YEAR OF RELEASE : 2004
RUNNING TIME : 156 minutes
GENRE : Historical Drama / War
GUIDENCE : Brief but very realistic and quite gruesome scenes of surgery and amputations under very primitive conditions. Several suicides are shown, and the killing in their sleep of Joseph Goebbel's children is shown in detail
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : Best Foreign Language Film
KEY CAST AND CHARACTERS
This film has a long cast list, but most of the roles could be described as bit parts. Few of the actors are on screen for very long. No single character carries the entire film, even though of course Hitler is the focus of attention of both the people in the bunker, and of the camera lens.
Bruno Ganz's playing of Adolf Hitler is certainly impressive. Although the characterisation doesn't quite convey how this man managed to instill such obedience for his fanatical deranged orders, Ganz certainly captures the essence of a mind which is a complex mix of irrationality, temperamentality, delusion, weariness, arrogance and ruthlessness.
Ulrich Matthes, it must be said, has a face which is his fortune when it comes to the playing of malevolent characters, and it serves him well in his portrayal of Joseph Goebbels - Hitler's propaganda chief - as a particularly creepy and cold hearted individual, seemingly without a single redeeming feature. Probably the characterisation is accurate - this was one of Hitler's most loyal sycophants, who stayed with him to the very end.
Corinna Harfouch is cast as Goebbel's wife Magda, a hardened Nazi who puts her ideals even above the lives of her own children - she and Joseph are well matched.
Most people would choose Bruno Ganz's performance as the most powerful, and it is certainly the most emotionally taxing. But from a pure acting point of view, I would suggest somewhat unconventionally that the stand out performance in the film comes from Juliane Kohler, as Hitler's mistress Eva Braun, who marries him in the final days in the bunker. This performance, which in my view was worthy of an Oscar, is actually quite a sympathetic portrait of Eva's character if not her brain power. It shows her as a bit of an airhead, divorced from the reality of the situation she finds herself in. She's shown as apolitical, presumably infatuated by Hitler's power, but with little interest in the war or Nazism. Even in the final days, she's more concerned with looking good and having fun, dancing the night away in the bunker, utterly uncomprehending when others in the bunker express despair or anger or fear. She even copes with discussions of suicide in a light manner. Perhaps she's not so stupid - she knows the reality of what faces her, but she can't get out of the situation so she just blanks it out of her mind and tries to carry on with her life as best she can. An unusual and complex performance.
Two other characters - one inside and one outside the bunker - act like rational onlookers so that a slightly more detached view of the actions taken by Hitler and some of his generals can be seen through their eyes. Inside the bunker is Traudl Junge, Hitler's personal secretary who later co-wrote one of the accounts upon which this film is based. Outside on the streets, her counterpart is Professor Ernst-Gunther Schenck, a medical doctor in the SS, who views the increasingly desperate situation with exasperation at the pointless loss of life. These are significant and important roles, played with accomplishment by Alexandra Maria Lara and Christian Berkel as Traudl Junge and Professor Schenck respectively.
How accurate these portrayals really are, or indeed the portrayals of other infamous personnel such as Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann, is for historians to debate, but all the performances do have a credibility about them which gives the whole piece an air of authenticity.
In the same year that he was starring as the leading Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 'Downfall', Ulrich Matthes also starred in another film called 'The Ninth Day', in which he played a Catholic priest who was imprisoned by the Nazi authorities at Dachau Concentration Camp.
Six of Frau Goebbels' children are in the bunker, but she has a seventh, eldest child to whom she writes a letter. Harald was a Lieutenant in the Luftwaffe, but he had been captured by the Allies in Italy in 1944. It was 1947 when he was released.
One of the characters, General Burgdorf, is played by Justus Von Dohnanyi, whose grandfather was one of the conspirators in the Hitler assassination plot of 1944. Hans Von Dohnanyi was hanged in September 1944 in a concentration camp.
'Downfall' is bookended by brief comments by the real Traudl Junge which were part of a longer interview recorded in 2001 for a documentary about life in the bunker. When the documentary aired in 2002, Traudl Junge could not watch due to serious health problems as a result of advancing cancer. After the premiere, one of the cameramen went to the hospital to tell her that the film had been well received. Anecdotally, she is said to have responded: 'My lifework is accomplished. Now I can let go.' A few hours later Traudl Junge died.
SPECIAL FEATURE: HITLER - THE PORTRAYAL OF A DESPOT
In this film, Hitler is vulnerable. He depends upon the people around him. He no longer has any ability to command his battalions (such as they are) in the field. He is also tired and frail. But he still has the capacity for ruthlessness and rage and domination of a conversation, and one can easily imagine how, in former times, it might have been hard for those around him to resist. In the period depicted in this film, Hitler sways violently between depression, anger, and deluded self belief. During one of his more upbeat moments when Hitler is with Chief Architect, Albert Speer, he expresses his dreams for a great and beautiful Berlin built from the ruins; a Berlin of art, culture and magnificent buildings. One can imagine how similar sentiments and forceful ambitions expressed during the 1920s and early 30s when Germany was suffering from humiliation after World War I, economic collapse, and a break down in law and order, might have unified the German nation behind this man, who promised to make the country great again. In 1945, the cycle has turned full circle and Germany is once again a broken nation.
Many of the sequences which take place on the streets of Berlin are quite powerful for their depiction of brutal warfare, but 'Downfall' is at its best when it shows emotional dilemmas.
In an early scene a father approaches a group of Hitler Youth. They include among their number Peter Kranz, his young son. He pleads with Peter to come home. He tells all of them that they should go home. The war is lost and further resistance will only result in their deaths. But no one listens. At best, they just stare blankly. At worst, they defend their Fuhrer and their commitment to stay at their posts and fight to the end regardless. Peter calls his father a coward. It is all so futile, but the scene represents how even young children could be brainwashed into laying down their lives.
Two of the young soldiers involved in the altercation with Peter Kranz's father later recognise the cause is lost. One is a pretty young girl called Inge who seemingly has everything to live for, yet she raises her arm in a fanatical Nazi salute and implores her colleague to shoot her. He does so. Then in a moment of uncontrolled despair, clearly not wanting to die but also not wanting to live, he points the gun at his own head. What a waste, and perhaps the only point in the film where one might feel some sympathy for the emotional trauma of a soldier in a Nazi uniform.
At one point, Eva Braun and Magda Goebbels are both writing final messages to be read in the event of their deaths. The letter writing itself is interesting for the different values of the two women. Frau Braun is most concerned with what happens to her jewellery and other possessions after her death. Frau Goebbels is coldly laying out in a letter to her eldest son just why she feels justified in a decision she has taken to end the lives of her children (see below, and in 'Favourite Quotes'). The letters are written out against a backdrop of what is the going on outside the bunker - the chaos, the carnage in a medical outpost, and the shootings, including the suicide scene mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Subsequent to the letter writing, Frau Goebbels puts into action her decision to kill her children, and we see from beginning to end how this done, the camera lingering long over the scene to convey the true hideousness of what she is doing. Reputedly the actress Corinna Harfouch nearly broke down during the unsettling scenes when, as Frau Goebbels, she administers the drugs to the children. (Similarly Bruno Ganz had difficulties emotionally during one scene when, as Adolf Hitler, he had one of the ill-fated little children sat on his knee).
Delusion plays an important role in all of what goes on, and serves up some of the best quotes. There is the delusion of Adolf Hitler, still trying to cling to belief in ultimate victory, and the delusion of those who accept every word he says as if it is Gospel. Magda Goebbels and the Hitler Youth apparently believe that life after the Third Reich will be intolerable. Fiinally there is the delusion of people like Trudl Junge, blind to all that is happening in the real world.
Hitler's delusion is revealed early in the film when he surveys a model of the Berlin he and his chief architect Albert Speer had dreams of building - a Romanesque Imperial capital:
- 'Speer, the bombing raids on our cities have a positive side. It's much easier to remove the debris than to tear everything down. Once we win the war, reconstruction will be completed very quickly.'
Speer remains silent. This is just two weeks before the end.
Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of the SS, sees that the cause is lost long before his master, yet is equally deluded about the future. He actually believes after all his actions as instigator of the holocaust that he will still be able to command respect for his position of authority when the war is over. He says to his adjutant Fegelein:
- 'They need the Nazi state and my SS to keep order after the war..... Give me an hour with Eisenhower and he'll agree. We're already in touch ..... Should I give Eisenhower the Nazi salute or shake his hand?'
Finally, one must turn to the Goebbels, and the most horrific act of all in the final days - the decision to kill their own children, rather than let them live in the World after Hitler. Frau Goebbels reveals her own delusions:
- 'Our magnificent idea has died., along with every beautiful, admirable, noble good thing I've ever known. The world after the Führer's death and after National Socialism (Nazism) is no longer worth living in. That's why the children are here. They are too good for what will come. A merciful God will understand me for giving them redemption.'
What a blinkered, twisted view of the world, but so typical of the thinking which has brought the Nazi leaders to this position.
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SPECIAL FEATURE - A DEPRESSING TRAGEDY UNFOLDING, OR JUST DESSERTS FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BUNKER?
There are aspects of this event in history which would fit within the classical format of a Shakespearian tragedy, as a once powerful man is brought down by flaws in his character, and by events taking place around him. In a Shakespearian tragedy, it is often possible to identify with, and even feel sympathy with, the central character who suffers this downfall.
Outside the bunker on the streets of Berlin, it is indeed possible to identify with and sympathise with some of the characters - the doctors struggling to keep people alive in impossible conditions, the ordinary civilians, even the Nazi Youth soldiers who have known no other leadership or way of life and who kill themselves rather than face life in a world which they have been indoctrinated to believe will be intolerable.
But in the bunker itself? Can one feel sympathy? Looking at the shuffling, shambling world-weary, defeated central character, it would be possible in any almost other circumstances to feel some sympathy for him, or his directionless subordinates for whom all hope is lost. But this is Adolf Hitler, arguably the most hideous despot in history, a man responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, not just in war, but in callous genocide. And the people around him are the sycophants who never allowed morality to get in the way of loyalty in the past, and who even now are driven to obey his commands however ridiculous they may be.
To the film's credit, even though the people in the bunker are depicted as human beings with dreams and emotions, one never feels very sorry for them. Most are mature and loyal Nazis. They have brought this situation upon themselves by blindly following this man. Now they must suffer the consequences.
- (Seemingly one of the most tragic of the suicides in the bunker is that of Dr Ernst-Robert Grawitz, who blows himself up along with the family he clearly loves. Surely one can feel sympathy for a man in such a state of despair? Well, the good doctor was the Chairman of the German Red Cross. But he had also been instrumental in advising Himmler on gas chamber use, and concentration camp candidates for Nazi experimentation. So whatever one's feelings for his family, was the doctor's death tragic, or just desserts? Learning the reality of the Nazis, tempers any feelings of sympathy).
SPECIAL FEATURE - TRAUDL JUNGE
This movie begins and ends with statements by the real life Traudl Junge, Adolf Hitler's secretary. In the prologue, she reminisces about the young girl she was at the time, and wonders how she could have become involved with such an evil regime. She largely puts it down to a sense of curiosity about the nation's leader, and a naivety about what she was getting involved in.
In the epilogue, she claims that she stayed ignorant of the atrocities committed by her boss, because of this naivety brought on by her youth. But she also appreciates that many many people of her age had already had their lives cut short by Hitler's policies, and that youth and ignorance were not really a valid excuse. Even if she did not know, she could have found out.
Perhaps the greatest fascination of the rise of the Nazi party and the seemingly inevitable descent into global war, is the question of just why so many millions of people in a cultured nation like Germany felt compelled to follow the policies of extremism. In all historic footage and all historic quotes, Hitler clearly comes across as a ranting, arrogant man full of twisted logic. And yet people followed him. Why? There are several reasons, but one must be to do with the peculiar charisma of Adolf Hitler.
A criticism which may be laid on this movie is that it fails to capture the presumed charisma which caused people to follow him and helped him to power. Some feel that the movie suffers because there is no one 'normal' character to empathise with. Some feel that if the role of Traudl Junge had been made a stronger focal point of the film, then maybe it would be possible to analyse exactly what caused a seemingly ordinary person (and by extrapolation, an entire nation) to follow a dictator like Hitler into Hell.
I suspect however, that the qualities which infatuated so many, had all been lost by April 1945. There is no charisma left. Just a deteriorating state of mind and the onset of Parkinson's Disease. Given that this is not a film about the rise of Hitler, but rather a film about the downfall of Hitler, I don't think the criticism is justified.
It does however remain difficult to understand why in 1945, when all hope was lost and Hitler was becoming feeble, so few of his senior officers seemed capable of standing up to him. 'Downfall' does not really make this clear, but presumably, it was a case of no one having any willpower left after a decade of obeying every order without question.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
Although it is difficult to be sure of the accuracy of the events as depicted in this film, one suspects that this is about as authentic a reconstruction of the final days of the Third Reich that one will ever see. Made by Germans, the film forgoes most of the typical clichéd jack-booted 'sieg heiling' caricatures of most Western portrayals of Nazi politicians, Nazi officers and soldiers, and gives a more realistic appraisal of how they might have acted in those last days. The film however does not shirk from the megalomania, the psychoses, and the brutal disregard for human life which governed the behaviours of some in the bunker and on the streets.
'Downfall' conveys the pressures on the soldiers on the ground, and the utter turmoil swirling round in the heads of those trapped in the bunker, people who don't know whether to obey or disobey stupid orders, whether to descend into despair and cry, or just to drink and dance and shut the future out of their minds. Many choose this last option.
This is a psychological study - people have to make their decisions. Some of the people will stay fanatically devoted to the Führer. Some will stay loyal, merely because they see no other way to go. Some will begin to detach themselves and strive to save themselves or make peace to prevent further futile loss of life. It is a very powerful study.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Many readers of this article will not have watched 'Downfall' for one simple reason; it is a film with subtitles. I can understand that - there's plenty of good movies in the English language to watch and enjoy. Why watch a movie when you have to make an effort to read as well as watch?
But I would ask that anyone who thinks this way should make an exception in this case and set aside two and a half hours one day to concentrate on the film 'Downfall'. This is a most thoughtful and meticulous study of a nightmare situation, and a claustrophobic community of people whose world is coming to an end, and who have no clear idea how to deal with it.
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