CINEMA: by R.J. StoveNews Weekly
Finale in the bunker - The Downfall
, June 4, 2005
Australian audiences are finding a new German film, The Downfall, about Hitler's last days, an extraordinarily powerful experience, writes R.J. Stove.To misquote Dean Swift: "When a film of true genius appears in the world, you shall know it by this infallible sign, that all Australia's dunces are in confederacy against it." The "quality press" has proved this again, in its response to The Downfall (Der Untergang, in the original German).
This epic, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, incurred a truly malicious attack in the Melbourne Age
(April 22). If we are to believe The Age
, those filling picture-theatres from Melbourne to Munich for The Downfall
are all either (a) brownshirts who itch to start a pogrom near you; or (b) dupes of same. However, any viewer who approaches The Downfall
honestly, without a New Class agenda of his own, will find it an extraordinarily powerful experience.
One cannot even call it an overwhelming movie, because as one watches, one is not conscious of beholding a movie at all. It effects that which the cinema seldom manages anywhere, and never, we can safely state, in Hollywood. In other words, it temporarily but wholly obliterates any perception of a barrier between the subject and the audience.Bunker
The subject is, of course, Hitler's bunker: during the last days of war, for the most part, although at first we briefly witness the comparatively normal circumstances of the Führer
's headquarters during 1942, when he hires a secretary, Frau Junge. Outside, the Red Army hordes are bringing their proverbial philanthropy to what had once been recognisable as Berlin (German officers retain a touching belief that the Reds will let females alone). Home defence is mostly in the hands of 12- and 14-year-olds from Hitler Youth.
Nonexistent armies pullulate within the Chancellor's mind, bearing no connection to what is on his maps, much less to what is in his capital's suburbs. Hitler's few moments of lucidity consist of envying Stalin for having removed all his
underachieving generals by killing them. An atmosphere of "devil take the hindmost" prevails.
Himmler (played by Ulrich Noethen), his innate horror increased by his appearance's extreme tediousness, fantasises about how the Allies will install him as head of a pan-European anti-Bolshevik bloc. (Mussolini entertained the same delusion in early 1945.) Planning his negotiations with Eisenhower - and demonstrating the same grasp of reality which earlier convinced him that he was the literal
incarnation of mediaeval German emperor Henry I - Himmler wonders out loud whether he should shake Ike's hand or give the Nazi salute.Captured and shot
Göring, back on the morphine again after years of cold turkey, proclaims Hitler's de facto
Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), brother-in-law of Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), gets in touch with his inner Basil Seal, via enthusiastic skirt-chasing. Eventually Fegelein plans to flee for Sweden, but is captured and unceremoniously shot before he can attain a life of monotonous Scandinavian virtue.
The bunker's guards spend most of their time in hopeless dipsomania. As might be expected, the women in Hitler's entourage behave more loyally, on the whole, than the men. (Enough evidence survives, notably in Albert Speer's self-serving but valuable memoirs, to indicate that Fräulein Braun - like her Italian counterpart Claretta Petacci - had character and shrewdness far beyond what her popular repute as complete airhead would suggest.)
In the end, The Downfall
represents the triumph of one actor above all: Bruno Ganz, if the word "actor" makes any sense with so gripping an assumption. Everything you may have heard about the virtuoso splendour of Ganz's portrayal is true. He has the physiognomy exactly right, for one thing. (So do all the other leading cast members, save perhaps for Christian Redl, who makes General Jodl look more uncouth and peasant-like than the real Jodl did.)
If there is a greater performance in modern cinematography's entire annals than Ganz's, then let us see it. Almost unbelievably, Ganz commands so vast an emotional range that he can make Hitler's umpteenth temper tantrum as frightening to witness as the first.
When Hitler whines, yelps and barks at the dinner table about the duty to extirpate compassion, he conveys the eerie feeling that some mischievous costumier has slapped a toothbrush moustache upon Ayn Rand.The Downfall
leaves no physical agony of total warfare unexplored on-screen. Yet all is somehow monumental and distanced in its anguish.
Everything about The Downfall
- including the inspired choice of Purcell's When I Am Laid In Earth
as the soundtrack's main theme, rather than the Wagnerian or Brucknerian tenebrosities which a more conventional director than Hirschbiegel would have used - bespeaks distinction.
Everything, that is, except the very end.
This is disfigured by a wretched PC segment, wherein the real Frau Junge (who lived until 2002) flagellates herself, in authentic Stalinist style, about her youthful lack of ideological consciousness. However, filmic brilliance remains filmic brilliance, even when flawed in ways which would destroy a lesser creation.