movie film review | chris tookey

Downfall/ Der Untergang

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  Downfall/ Der Untergang Review
Tookey's Rating
7 /10
Average Rating
7.70 /10
Adolf Hitler: Bruno Ganz , Traudl Junge: Alexandra Maria Lara
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Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Written by: Bernd Eichinger, based on Inside Hitler's Bunker by Joachim C. Fest and Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller

Released: 2004
Origin: Germany/ italy
Colour: C
Length: 150

Gripping account of Hitler’s last days.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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I never knew Adolf Hitler personally, but I did once meet the fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, who had. Mosley, then an old man who – even in the context of a chintzy Chelsea house belonging to one of his relatives - looked like a torpid but vaguely menacing crocodile, fixed me with a forbidding eye and demanded, “Do you know what was wrong with Hitler?”

I was fairly sure Sir Oswald would be less than interested to hear me catalogue the late Fuhrer’s shortcomings so, in the manner of an aspiring Michael Parkinson, I batted the question straight back to him: “Er, what do you think was wrong with him?”

This was clearly the right answer. He leaned forward and wagged his finger at me, as though he were in his heyday, and addressing an audience of five hundred:

“Couldn’t relax,” he said. “I myself could wind down within minutes of making a speech. Not Hitler. Used to stay up all night afterwards. That was his problem – lack of sleep. Affected his judgment.”

I refrained from pointing out that the Fuhrer’s judgment wasn’t entirely beyond reproach anyway, but Sir Oswald’s words did come back to me as I was watching Downfall, in which Bruno Ganz as Hitler (pictured second from right) turns spectacularly from charismatic Leader of Men into a shambolic, bitter, shaking wreck. By the time in history that this film begins, not only was Hitler not relaxed. He had a great deal to be not relaxed about.

Some are hailing Downfall as the greatest war film ever. It isn’t – but it’s certainly the most meticulous, detailed and arresting account yet of life and death in Hitler’s Berlin bunker.

At its centre is Ganz’s commanding, multi-faceted performance. He makes Hitler not merely the ranting megalomaniac familiar from earlier films and newsreels, but also a man who could be courteous, softly-spoken and even affectionate to those in his immediate circle, especially his German shepherd dog Blondi.

It’s a memorable depiction of the divide observable in many powerful men between their private, kindly selves and the ruthless, even brutal figures that they can be in public. And it makes much more sense of Hitler’s democratic rise to power. You can see that here was a man who could inspire fierce loyalty, dedication and obedience – even at the end, when his most ardent supporters could see that he was deranged.

Some may worry at this apparent “softening” of Hitler, especially as it’s by a German director (Oliver Hirschbiegel) and writer (Bernd Eichinger), but Hitler’s madness and malevolence are made abundantly clear. Hitler is chilling when he pronounces his loathing for the Jews and his contempt for his own people when, in his own mind, they prove themselves “weaklings”, unequal to the task of implementing his glorious vision of the Third Reich.

Almost as striking is Juliane Kohler (pictured centre), who portrays Eva Braun (very accurately, from the historical accounts I have read) as a simple soul, defiantly cheerful and empty-headed, crazily determined to support the Fuhrer like any other supportive wife. The one time she allows the mask to slip is in a lovely scene towards the end, when she confides to Hitler’s young, female secretary that Hitler is not much fun these days: “He only talks about dogs and vegetarian meals. I hate Blondi. Sometimes I kick her secretly.”

The images that stay in the mind are these eerily domestic moments, played out in a harsh, concrete nightmare bizarrely evocative of our very own National Theatre.

The cadaverous Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his children come across as a grotesque version of the Von Trapp singers from The Sound of Music, performing patriotic little songs for an appreciative Fuhrer, prior to being first drugged and then poisoned with cyanide capsules by their frighteningly devout National Socialist mother (Corinna Harfouch), an unnerving mixture of Medea and Mary Poppins.

Where the film falls well short of greatness is in the clunkiness of some of the exposition, with lines like “You are married to Eva Braun’s sister” - to which the only possible naturalistic reply is “I know. Why are you telling me this?”

The film contains so many characters that it’s often impossible to keep track of who’s who. And the reliance on so many different eye-witness reports means that the point of view keeps shifting.

Much is seen through the eyes of Hitler’s secretary, Traudi Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), but she is largely a passive onlooker. Other events are filtered through the psyche of Hitler’s armaments minister Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), an army medic Dr Schenck (Christian Berkel) and even a 13 year-old member of the Hitler youth (Donevan Gunia).

I wonder whether the film might not have done better to concentrate on its central character. The film drags and becomes confusing whenever Hitler is offscreen. This is a tribute not only to the magnetism of Bruno Ganz, but also - in a curious way – to Hitler.

As we look at this broken, babbling and delusional man, we see not only the frailty of all dictators, but a man who was capable of being democratically elected.

As we hear his insane rantings, based a belief that the truth could be whatever he wished it to be, it is hard not to see in him a precursor of later, more well-meaning leaders who have in time fallen prey to their own warlike delusions and the flattery of an inner coterie.

This most human but also most frightening of Hitlers is living, or in this case dying, proof of the dictum that all politicians, sooner or later, fall victim to their own spin.

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