DVD Review Of Downfall

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/20/07


  In the annals of film, the greatest screen portrayal of an evil world leader was undoubtedly Anthony Hopkins’ 1995 turn as President Richard M. Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Within five to ten minutes of one’s first glimpse of Hopkins- a Brit who looked and sounded nothing like the 37th American President, one almost forgets what the real Nixon looked like. But, now there’s a contender who could knock Hopkins off his perch- or at least give him a good fight, and that is Bruno Ganz’s turn as Adolf Hitler in the 2004 Academy Award nominated Best Foreign Language Film from Germany, Downfall (Der Untergang- literally The Downfall). What makes this all the more remarkable is that- unlike Nixon, many actors have tried and failed to get into Hitler’s skin, including the aforementioned Hopkins, who took on the role in The Bunker (1981). In fact, Ganz is so great at portraying Hitler- and he looks far more like the real Hitler than Hopkins did Nixon, even sans the Chaplinesque mustache and combover, that the film took much criticism for portraying Hitler as a real live human being. Heaven forfend that art contain some reality, or ‘truth,’ as the PC Elitists claim! Ganz is brilliant- from his wild veering between depression and rages, to his jittery nervousness, and a shaking of his hands which, when held behind his body, seem to devolve almost into the claw of a wounded raptor, grasping for anything to steady his older than he looks fifty-six year old form. In fact, Ganz seems to age and literally shrink in size, as he stoops and hunches, with each succeeding scene. Yet, it’s the moments of tenderness Hitler shows his fiancée/wife, Eva Braun, his wounded indignation at perceived betrayals, and his timidity toward women, as well as impeccable manners, that really offends the PC. This ability to move a viewer is, of course, the manifestation of the great art of a great artist.

  Many big name critics, around the world, though, took the film to task for the most asinine of reasons. The New Yorker’s David Denby, a minor thinker, wrote: ‘As a piece of acting, Ganz’s work is not just astounding, it’s actually rather moving. But I have doubts about the way his virtuosity has been put to use….We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did?’ This incredibly idiotic statement, and many other PC comments like it, about film and art in general, are the very reasons I took to writing film criticism. What response could possibly be sufficient to the genocidal crimes of a Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, or King Leopold?

  But, art is not a response to, merely a reflection of, some form of reality- or its inverse, as filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once claimed. Critic-at-large, Roger Ebert, rightly took Denby to task for his puerility, stating, ‘I do not feel the film provides ‘a sufficient response’ to what Hitler actually did,’ because I feel no film can, and no response would be sufficient.’ But, after such a concise summation, he then adds, of Hitler, ‘He was skilled in the ways he exploited that feeling, and surrounded himself by gifted strategists and propagandists, but he was not a great man, simply one armed by fate to unleash unimaginable evil.’ This is a remark clearly mindful of Louis Farrakhan’s claims, a few years back, that Hitler was a ‘great man,’ that unleashed a firestorm, but it is also logically self-defeating, and shows that Ebert is not only not a student of history, but much better in phrasing words than thinking out their logical consequences. Hitler did not merely waltz onto the world stage, and have everything fall into his lap- from admirers to world events. He had a precise blueprint, aka Mein Kampf, worked for years perfecting his ‘craft’- demagoguery, and actively shaped his future. He came within two or three bad decisions of wiping out Eurasian Jewry, and even more minorities, as well as the colonial powers of Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Like it or not, Hitler was a great man, as were Stalin and Mao, and Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great before them. Mass murderers all, but all great, as long as one is mindful that great does not only mean ‘good’ nor ‘decent,’ and that great men also can have great flaws.

  Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not reach the heights of art that Ganz does in his performance. Downfall is a solid to good film, much better than incompetent triumphalist swill like Saving Private Ryan, and on par with realist war films like Stalingrad or The Big Red One, but it does not come close to the greatness nor poesy of war films like Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line, nor even the stark symbolic poesy of Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, nor the definitive German World War Two film, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot.

  Some of the weakest parts of the film come from the performances of the other lead characters- the ‘usual suspects’ of Nazi lore. There is Ulrich Matthes as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Matthes plays Goebbels as an almost insectoid parody of evil- a Nazi at home in a 1950s film, rather than a ‘realistic’ portrayal, who looks a bit like a praying mantis. He is so gaunt, and his eyes so blackened with hate, that I was reminded of a cut scene from Stone’s Nixon where Sam Waterston’s eyes, as CIA Director Richard Helms, literally blacken with evil. Then, in a scene that is absurd, and widely disputed as ‘fact’ (although the film is widely hailed as being historically accurate- in stark contrast to Stone’s films like JFK and Nixon, which are far more historically accurate than given credit for), Goebbels breaks down and weeps in front of Hitler’s secretary when he asks her to type his final testament, as she types the same from Hitler. An even more problematic bit of overacting comes from Corinna Harfouch, as Goebbels’ wife, Magda- a Lady Macbeth with more venom but less flair, but bearing an uneasy- if not unintended, resemblance to former First Lady and Senator Hillary Clinton. She’s so distraught over the thought of a world without Nazism that she just has to kill her progeny. The scenes of her plotting to kill her children, then doing so by drugging them asleep, and putting cyanide capsules in their mouths, is widely hailed as ‘bravura’ acting. I disagree. She basically plays Magda as a one note evil bitch throughout the film, save when she fawns to Hitler. This may be historically accurate, but does not require much in the way of acting. Both Goebbels are so ‘bad,’ and parodically so, that even though they were Nazis- not Communists, I could not help but think of Boris and Natasha from the old Bullwinkle cartoons. Incidentally, the whole manner of death of the Goebbels children is also total speculation, and again voids claims of historical accuracy, although makes me wonder if there may have been some sly jab at the Clintonian take on mothering children by including it? I doubt so, since Hirschbiegel, in the DVD extras and commentary seems firmly PC. Bearing that in mind, the real reason for the inclusion seems to be to show that Nazis (and Magda, in particular) were….yes, evil!

  That brings one to Hitler’s secretary, the de facto heroine of the film, twenty-five year old Traudl Junge, whose real filmed comments bookend this film, in excerpts from the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (Im Toten Winkel: Hitlers Sekretarin). As played by Alexandra Maria Lara she’s a mere cipher, which, again, may be historically accurate, but does not push one’s acting skills, nor elevate the film. By film’s end we get a fictive account of her ‘brave march’ through Russian lines and gallivanting on a bicycle with a reprehensible preteen example of the Hitler Youth, Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia)- a fictive character with little in the way of emotional nor narrative arc. Yet, perhaps the most praised performance, outside of Ganz’s as Hitler, is that of Juliane Köhler as Eva Braun. While better than either Harfouch or Lara, Köhler has only one real scene that tests her as an actress, and that is when she pleads to Hitler to spare the life of her brother-in-law, SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), a roué who cares little of Nazi ideology, and only of personal advancement. Hitler refuses to stop his execution, and she falls meekly into line. It’s a good scene- despite verging on weak parody, but over the top emotionalism- while it may win awards, is not equivalent to good acting. Other than that scene, there are a few better scenes of her smoking with the other ‘girls of the Bunker’- Junge and Gerda Christian (Birgit Minichmayr), but mostly her role consists of playing the good, Aryan party girl. The one moment that seems ‘real’ comes when she admits to Junge that she kicks Hitler’s dog, Blondi, when he is not around, so that it acts odd around people and annoys Hitler with its moods- who merely muses as to his dog’s reactions.

  The rest of the featured Nazis come and go so quickly that to call their roles ‘well acted’ is kind of silly. Heino Ferch plays Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, and widely known as closest confidante to Hitler, as well being his biggest bootlicker. He is solid, but his ‘great scene’ consists of him telling Hitler that he disobeyed the Führer’s order to destroy German infrastructure. Hitler says little, refuses to shake his hand, and Speer gets away with it. Unfortunately, the scene never really happened. I don’t really care of its historicity, from a dramatic point of view, if it had worked well, but it’s sort of predictable, and self-serving for the character, and his been widely debunked on more than one occasion as mere self-serving hagiography that allowed Speer to avoid a death sentence at the Nuremberg Trials. Other notable Nazi scum, like SS head Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) and Hitler’s right hand man Martin Bormann (Thomas Thieme) are given so little screen time that they seem to have been included merely as ‘guest villains.’ The former spends his role seemingly scheming to sell Hitler out to American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and worrying over whether to shake his hand or greet him with the Nazi salute, and the latter’s appearance was so brief that had I not checked IMDB I would not have even realized his character was onscreen at all. Hermann Göring, the Nazi head of the Luftwaffe, is only seen I the film’s ending, which recounts the fates of all the parties. This, however, is explicable since he was on the outs with Hitler in the final few years.

  Much of this lack of the substantive inner circle of Nazism can be pawned off on the meager screenplay, by Bernd Eichinger, and director Oliver Hirschbiegel, rather than the actors. They adapted the material found in Junge’s memoirs, Bis Zur Letzten Stunde- written by Melissa Müller, and the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker, by Joachim Fest. The actors merely had to make do with what was tossed to them. Yet, the larger problem the film faced was not how to squeeze so many Nazis into the 155 minute film, but where to place the focus. Let’s face it; dramatically speaking, no one really gives a damn about the suffering of Berliners in the final days of the Third Reich. People are only interested in Hitler and the handful of people about him. In short, the dramatic center of the film is an insight into what made Hitler Hitler. And we never get that. The film never even attempts, for instance, what poet W.D. Snodgrass did in his long poem, The Führer Bunker- to paint Hitler from the inside out. All we get are the externals- at which Ganz is superb. But the writing fails, for no amount of shaking digits nor psychotic bluster can disguise the probing lack within.

  Given the nature of the last days of Hitler- the subject of prior films, and the manifest drama of it, is it too much to expect a bit more art and insight? The film could have lost a good forty-five minutes had it stripped away not only the token appearances by Nazi ‘names,’ but also distracting and predictable fictive side stories, such as Peter the Hitler Youth, whose only reason for appearance is to show him (or young Germany) as not irredeemable (and whose scenes with his Nazi disapproving dad border on laughable), or a weary doctor, Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel), patrolling the streets of Berlin to help wounded soldiers and civilians. His only raison d’être is to show that all Germans of that era were not evil; although one wonders why he only sees the rampant suffering when the empire is due to collapse. I guess he knew this was when the cameras were rolling.

  There simply needed to be more and deeper Hitler in this film, even if it was just the director’s best guess at what made the tyrant tick. Yes, the Third Reich survived Hitler- by only a little more than a week. So what? Offing the main character, and only character anyone gives a damn about, with over forty minutes, or a quarter of your film, to go, is simply bad dramatic structure. A dramatic climax is virtually doomed to failure when it is reached before 90% of the work has played out. This is Drama 101. Director Hirschbiegel has countered the charges that he humanized Hitler by stating that showing him as a human makes him more horrifying. True, but what made this tragic antihero horrifying, and why not end on him, the way Roman Polanski ends Repulsion by focusing on the interior of the main murderous character? There’s not even a small attempt to core into the man at the center of the film and history, nor distill him to his essence. At the end, Hitler shows almost as much contempt for the German people as he does Jews and the ‘lower races.’ Would not this be an ‘in’ to the psychology? Instead of exploring the limits of film with daring camera work and dialogue, we get far too much typical Hollywoodian takes of Nazi Germany’s last gasps.

  The DVD, from Sony, is in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and features an hour long Making Of Downfall featurette, some interviews with the film’s participants, and an audio commentary from Hirschbiegel. The commentary is a bit too heavy on historical facts and lean on the art of the film. Hirschbiegel admits that many of the scenes are not true, made up, best guesses, or disputed, yet he still goes on and on about the historical verity of the film being supreme- a bit odd. It is also a bit annoying that Hirschbiegel views this film as something of a redemption, and voices the trite claim that Hitler was the worst killer in world history. Those who suffered under the Khans, the Conquistadores, the Communists, the Colonial powers, King Leopold, etc. might argue well; but movies are about myth, and Hirshbiegel is a German, not a Mongol, after all. Another annoyance is the repetition of the canonical Six Million Jews killed, with no mention of the millions of others killed in the death camps. The sufferings of Gypsies, homosexuals, Roman Catholics, trade unionists, POWs, Communists, etc. in the death camps simply do not mean as much. Nor, apparently do the far many more millions of Poles, Russians, Slavs, British, French, and others killed in Nazi aggressions, which I’m sure has only fed the Holocaust Deniers and Neo-Nazi claims of Jews trying to play politics with the Nazi bodycount. He also offers no explanation as to why the film is so poorly dramatically structured, nor why it is so psychologically fallow- save that he and Ganz felt that the only way to explain a Hitler was that he was a cipher inside. Yet, that sort of reasoning is really just a copout along the lines of those who claim Hitler of being congenitally evil, which Hirschbiegel categorically rejects.

  The commentary is in English, though, but unfortunately the film lacks an English dubbed soundtrack to minimize the usually annoying subtitles. On the plus side, the film’s visuals are not at its center, and Ganz, especially, is so good at inflecting Hitlerian nuances in muttered German, that, if only for losing that, this may be the rare foreign film for which subtitles may be preferable. The film’s technical aspects are all superb: production designer Bernd Lepel recreates Hitler’s bunker at Bavaria Studios in superb, believable, and stark detail; cinematographer Rainer Klausmann makes the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia (where the film was shot) look convincingly like 1940s Berlin- albeit aided by digital effects; and even the scoring, by Stephan Zacharias, is not too over the top, as many Nazi themed films tend to be. We know they’re evil and cowardly, and don’t need to have music to cue us in on that fact! Fortunately, Zacharias gets it. After all, so many Nazis chose suicide than to fight to the end for their beliefs, that one wonders how they ever got so far as they did- perhaps it was the weakness of their opposition, not their strength? That Hitler ended up incinerated, in light of the death camps, is an irony not lost on the film, which shows Hitler’s acolytes seemingly slavering over the flames.

  All in all, Downfall is a movie worth seeing, but it is not one that is ‘required viewing’- neither for its art nor its historical value. It rises and falls almost solely on Ganz’s shoulders. To me, the most affecting moments within come when Hitler willfully denies the reality of his nation’s Götterdammerung, and pretends that this or that general will save the day with a brilliant maneuver, at the last moment, to cut off the Russians, and save the war effort. Anyone watching the recent change of American military leadership in Iraq is familiar with their nation’s leader’s utter refusal to face stubborn facts, and it’s a scary scene- whether or not that leader is a mass murdering psychotic, or merely a clueless frat boy with a God complex. Yet, like many of the other ‘historical’ facts, this intermittent self-delusion is also considered, by most historians, untrue. Hitler is known to have commented after being repulsed at Stalingrad, and also after losing The Battle Of The Bulge, that he knew that an eventual German defeat was unavoidable. These are two more wasted opportunities to core into the man, and these ill wrought fictions- be they of whole characters or scenes with real personages, are ultimately what kill the screenplay. As a side note, it’s worth realizing the fact that the Second World War, despite its horrors and nonpareil bodycount, can now be thought of as the last real war ‘played by the rules’ says much of our species.

  That Downfall can succeed as a film, despite some bad acting, and a weak screenplay, also says much for the notion that a single great performance, as well as a historically significant and dramatic enough moment, can overcome abundant mediocrity more easily than a work of fiction can. Bruno Ganz is now the definitive film Hitler, but the definitive portrayal of his true downfall has yet to be made. Where is Ingmar Bergman when you really need him?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]

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