Forever rattled 

click to enlarge Bruno Ganz stars as Hitler.
  • Bruno Ganz stars as Hitler.

* Downfall (R)
Kimball's Twin Peak

In Downfall, viewers see a slightly addled and demented Adolf Hitler jiggling one of Third Reich commandant Joseph Goebbels' adorable towheaded children on his lap. The setting is Hitler's personal quarters, shared with his wife-mistress Eva Braun, in a bunker below Berlin's besieged streets in late April 1945. Up above, the Red Army is pummeling Berlin, children are taking up arms as their families are blown to bits before their eyes, while down below, Hitler, to the distress of his military aides and staff, maintains delusions that his dilapidated forces will rally to save the city and his dream of a Third Reich.

A German film that further explores and reveals how the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazism occurred in the middle of the last century, Downfall has received equal amounts of criticism and praise for its humanizing of the final SS holdouts and of Hitler himself, a historic figure so difficult to face we tend to think of him either in caricature or in mythical terms.

As played by Swiss-born character actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire), Hitler is a faltering ideologue whose health is diminishing and whose ideas have become so twisted in their execution that he has turned against everyone, including the German people for being weak and his own generals for failing to conquer the world. Dictating his mission statement one moment and praising the ravioli served at dinner in another, the Fhrer erupts into screaming rages, usually directed at some poor fool whose life is on the line, fighting a battle that's sure to be lost. And, of course, there is the cursed Jewry. The only creatures for whom Hitler seems to have any affection are his dog, Blondi, and his secretary, Traudl Junge, played by Alexandra Maria Lara as a wide-eyed ingnue who comprehends little of what's going on around her.

Do we need another Hitler-in-the-bunker biopic any more than a new Elvis biopic? If the story is told impeccably and forcefully -- as it is here by director Oliver Hirschbiegel, screenwriter Bernd Eichinger and cinematographer Rainer Klausmann -- the answer is a resounding, if unsettling, yes.

The battle scenes in Berlin's streets are teeth-rattling in their fierceness and sheer destructive power. The characterizations ask and attempt to answer the central question -- how could people have embraced the radical ideas of a murderer of civilizations? -- with mixed success.

Most startling is the depiction of the rabid fealty of Goebbels' wife Magda, who stoically administers a sleeping potion to each of her six children, then places a cyanide capsule between each set of little teeth and manually presses the jaws shut to deliver the shot of fatal gas -- all because she can't face raising her children in a world without national socialism. (Magda's ideological fervor stands in direct contrast to the perky idealism of the kids who love to visit Uncle Hitler and Aunt Eva and who think life in the bunker is hunky-dory. When Hitler's suicide shot rings out, a delighted Goebbels son, eating toast and jam in the kitchen, shouts, "Bull's-eye!")

In the end, after the Hitlers and the Goebbels are dead and incinerated, after the Germans have surrendered and some Nazi soldiers have resorted to suicide while others stand to be carted away to Soviet prison camps, Traudl Junge returns home to Bavaria. Years later, she tells the story of the last days of Hitler and her own complicity. We are reminded that the war took 50 million lives and Hitler's henchmen executed 6 million Jews.

The lasting effect of Downfall is terror -- at what happened then and at what could happen again given the human propensity for ideological absolutes and an unyielding leader to deliver them.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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