Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 4:14 pm 
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Not much fun in this hell

14 March 2005

The Germans have finally made a World War II movie with Hitler in it as a main character, hitherto a taboo for them, like showing Queen Elizabeth in a movie for the English, presumably for different reasons. Hirshbiegel's film gives us Hitler's last days in an unpalatable mix of generals, women, children murdered to save them from a world without National Socialism, Berlin crumbling around the Führer's meandering bunker, booms and crashes echoing around the auditorium.

The result is a harrowing and powerful but also plodding. It's as if director Hirschbiegel was so focused on just getting all the terror, gloom, and horror of it down on film he didn't step back to breathe. There's not much sense of pacing or rhythm. There's a steady unwinding, of course -- after all this is the devolution to end all devolutions -- but there's not much suspense or sense of calculated contrast between successive scenes. Maybe there isn't any room for art in such a story. But then you have to ask why "Downfall" was made, and the only answer is to provide some kind of catharsis for German viewers.

The director has epic ambitions. He not only covers the moods of the bunker on every level from general down to the lowest orderly (it's "Upstairs Downstairs" all played below), but also takes us up to street level where Berlin crumbles as the Russians move in, and it dives through battlefield hospitals teeming with moaning, screaming wounded and grizzled, exhausted surgeons sawing off limbs. (Why does the camera ritually shake every time there's a big explosion? It's a fake-looking effect.) We see so many people pop cyanide pills and blow their brains out it becomes almost routine. And we are witnesses to the kind of terrible battlefield gore we saw in Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and more recently in Jeunet's "Very Long Engagement."

But in fact, in "Downfall's" foreground, inside Hitler's bunker, there's no real action except the decision to do nothing, not to yield, to go down with the ship. This is the Endgame, the checkmate: the "king" is cornered. There's a lot of talk about escaping or surrendering but neither is going to happen. It all stays in the bunker till the end. Consequently the movie is character-driven, and succeeds best in impersonating known figures.

Most importantly, Hirschbiegel has engaged a marvelous actor, Bruno Ganz, to play a fully rounded version of the doomed Hitler. Over-saturated color and ill judged sickly lighting -- however accurate a reproduction the latter may be of the underground setting -- make the generals look like waxworks, but Ganz's Hitler is three-dimensional and has all the qualities ever attributed to him. He screams and yelps at the generals in a voice uncannily right, he's soft as a puppy-dog with women and children; and there are all stages of madness and folly and denial in between. Ganz can do as much with his face seen from the side as he can do with his stooped exhausted body, his twittering left hand hidden behind his back, and his voice rasping and cawing as he curses his generals, brags of dealing with the Jews, and condemns the German people to die -- but mild and soothing to the strangely cheerful Eva Braun, and sweet and forgiving as he hires a secretary. This is no mere impersonation: it makes Hitler real and complex.

That's disturbing to many viewers, especially Jewish ones, who have protested this movie should not even have been made; that even to look Hitler in the eye and see a human being taints the memory of the millions who died in the camps. But this is wrong. We don't need a cardboard man to know the Nazis were the personification of evil. The hard truth of evil's banality -- and commonality -- was dramatized by Hannah Arendt's reportage of the Eichmann trial in 1963.

After suicides have happened and corpses have been torched and officers have left to fight over whether to surrender, "Downfall" narrates a terrifying escape by several women, including Traudl Junge, Hitler's young secretary, beyond the Russian soldiers and out of Berlin. There's a little poetry -- perhaps the only moment when the movie sings in any conventional sense -- when Junge, already seen in Heller and Schmiderer's documentary, "Blind Spot," two years ago (to which this film owes much), escapes hand in hand with a small blond boy and cycles cross-country with him under a bright clear open sky (escapes, as the documentary shows, to a lifetime of guilt). Finally here is contrast, a flight from the bunker that sets off the grim experiences we've witnessed inside it.

Unfortunately, though, we've already seen so many cinematic depictions of depraved Nazi officers getting drunk amid naked girls (a classic version is Visconti's lugubrious and cloying "The Damned") that even when Eva Braun is one of the celebrants there's a numbed sense of déjà vu. Outside the bunker, up above, the dark sequences of mere children in soldier's uniforms playing the doomed hero are disgusting and heartbreaking, but that was an aspect of the final days of the Nazis that had its ultimate cinematic expression long ago in Berhhard Wicki's powerful 1959 anti-war movie, "Die Brücke." No, the only thing that makes "Downfall" different is the bunker, and Hirschbiegel might have done better to have stayed down there and never let us out. Hitler certainly never got out, except to be incinerated so the Allies wouldn't get his corpse. This is not a great movie, but it's a powerful one. It deserves to be seen, if you can handle the claustrophobic nightmares it may give you.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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