Tuesday, October 28, 2008

DOWNFALL (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004, Germany) Hitler’s omnipotence becomes impotence: he intentionally turns Germany into a charnel house while the concrete Berlin bunker becomes his tomb. Contrary to his outlandish oratory, Hitler never expected the Third Reich to outlive his godlike leadership, when he dies…so does Germany. His world began to shrink with the absolute failure of Operation Barbarossa when soon the Red Specter of vengeance haunted Germany’s borders, and the constant Allied bombing drove him deep underground to live in his grave. Many of the historical figures are here: Goebbels, Braun, Himmler, Bormann, and Speer. What makes this film truly chilling is that these characters are portrayed as complex human beings and not the mindless monsters of our high school history books. The brutality and hellish carnage is carried out by people who love their families and country, and yet are capable of murdering millions of human beings, of slaughtering helpless children, the elderly, and the disabled…when absolute faith is granted towards a human vessel, when devotion outweighs reason, then any cold-blooded and bestial act can be rationalized. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel employs a documentary interview with Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge to bookend the film and we experience the story mostly from her perspective in the cramped confines of Hitler’s drug addled final days. Bruno Ganz’s performance perfectly captures Hitler’s madness and ignorance in one moment, then a gentle touch or shy whisper the next. He gives life to this wax historical caricature, which helps us to understand how those closest to him became intoxicated with his essence: it is truly a remarkable achievement. Hirschbiegel dilutes the power of the bunker’s metaphor of a shrinking and dying Germany, its citizens entombed by the arrogance of its supposed savior, by moving the story to the shrapnel and corpse littered streets of Berlin: I felt the allusion was more potent than the cinematic illusion. The puissance of the narrative is framed within Frau Goebbels kindly murder of her own children; their slow numbing sleep greeted by a deathly gasp…and their tiny feet forever cold. Junge closes the film with a chilling recollection that youth is never an excuse for murder, that ignorance does not explain cruelty; she should have known of the Nazi atrocities instead of wearing the Swastika’s blinders. Though she speaks only for herself, these sentiments are a harsh judgment towards the German people. (B+)

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