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DOWNFALL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Juliane Köhler, Ulrich Matthes, Corinna Harfouch, Heno Ferch, Christian Berkel
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Audio: German 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Sony
Features: Making-of Downfall, Cast & crew interviews, director commentary
Length: 155 minutes
Release Date: August 2, 2005

"If we lose the war, it doesn't matter if the nation dies."

Film ****

April 30, 1945.  On this date, the man most responsible for some of the worst human atrocities of the twentieth century - and there were indeed many - died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  In the last decade of his life, that man, Adolf Hitler, had amassed immeasurable power yet had lost everything through a blinding personal agenda of hatred and violence, as outlined in his 1920's manifesto Mien Kampf.  Although some revisionist historians have pointed out various beneficial social and economic changes adopted early during Hitler's reign of power, there can be little doubt that by the start of World War Two, Hitler's aggressive pursuit of the establishment of unquestionable German superiority had long supplanted his regard for other nations or ethnicities. 

Today, Hitler's Nazi Germany generally is associated with numerous crimes against race, although Hitler had detested communism quite vehemently, too.  His epic invasion plan for the eastern front, Operation Barbarossa, had been designed to eradicate communist Russia swiftly but had in the end devolved into a terrible and drawn-out bloodbath on a scale unparalleled in all of human history.  Eventually, the economic and military strain of fighting the Russians on one war front and resisting the American and British forces on another proved too much even for the mighty Wehrmacht.  Nazi Germany would fall and along with it, the Füehrer, too.

Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004) is the story then of the final days of Adolf Hitler, when the overbearing repercussions of the German leader's dangerous ambitions had finally brought his once-proud nation to the brink of destruction.  Based upon the actual memoirs of a Hitler secretary, Downfall offers an unflinchingly bleak portrayal of the man and the contradictory demons of his nature as viewed by his inner circle and particularly by Traudl Junge, Hitler's young and impressionable personal secretary.  In the film, Junge serves the vicarious role of passive observer for the audiences but is equally a symbol of the blind adulation bestowed by the German populace upon Hitler.  Theirs was an unwitting loyalty sustained by webs of perpetuating propagandistic lies from Hitler's regime.

Downfall opens in November 1942 as a small group of prospective young secretaries is brought to a secret bunker complex in East Prussia.  Der Füehrer, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz), has need of an assistant, and Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is selected for this privilege.  Only twenty-two at the time, Junge would serve Hitler for the next three years, bearing witness to his moments of lucidity as well as his terrible tantrums, particularly during the final days of conflict as increasingly dour news poured in from the collapsing war front.  Numerous historic figures abound in this film, perhaps overwhelming so, key among them being Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), Hitler's longtime mistress and eventual wife, and Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Hitler's unquestionably devoted right-hand man (a dour fate awaited many of these Germans, and even innocent children were not spared the cruel reality of war, as portrayed tragically so in this film).

After its opening scene, Downfall wastes no time in thrusting the viewer immediately into the midst of a panicked, tumultuous Berlin during April, 1945.  As with any war film, there are glimpses of the actual combat, but Downfall focuses most intently upon the tension and drama in the German capital and within Hitler's underground command bunker during the final ten days of Hitler's life.  Interspersed among the scenes detailing the imminent fall of Berlin are moments of surrealism, from drunken German orgies to jazz parties even as Russian artillery pounds the city incessantly.  In this end of days, in face of certain death, the denizens of Berlin and even remnants of the Nazi regime seemingly abandon decorum and protocol in favor of debauchery and alcohol.  Yet even as his Third Reich disintegrates about him, within his bunker Hitler continues to devise new counterattacks and stratagems, often ordering about army units already destroyed or entirely imaginary.

The few loyal soldiers who bravely choose to continue fighting represent a pale imitation of the once-fearsome Wehrmacht.  Some are accused of being traitors for suggesting that Germany should negotiate a peaceful surrender.  Others attempt to flee outright, preferring to save their own lives or to seek the relative clemency of American GIs over the vengeful brutality of the approaching Russian soldiers.  No leniency is afforded among the Germans themselves to such cowards, and even while the critical shortage in manpower proves increasingly hopeless, numerous German death squads roam the streets of the capital city, shooting would-be deserters on sight.  Such is the paradox of war.  Old men, young boys, and teenaged girls comprise the German army now, recruited for the final, apocalyptic battle to preserve Berlin against the Russian onslaught. 

While the film's central character is Traudl Junge, Bruno Ganz's Adolf Hitler provides the dramatic core of the film.  Ganz's performance is chilling yet utterly compelling, a portrait of a desperate, self-deceived man assigning blame and accusations of betrayal even as his world crumbles about him.  Were not the despicable nature of Hitler's actions already well-documented, this man might seem a creature of pity, caught in events spiraling far out of his control towards an inevitable conclusion.

Pseudo-documentary in style, Downfall is a film that will be most relevant for those viewers who can truly grasp the magnitude of the film's depicted events (either from personal experience or through historical context).  Sadly, the grave ramifications of World War Two still very much affect our lives today.  Downfall may portray the final days in the collapse of a historic regime, but it should also be considered a broader parable for the injustices of which humanity is capable.

Any form of government theoretically can be applied feasibly and judiciously to any nation of people, given the right and conscientious leader.  But, it is a universal truth that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Evil arises not through the form of government itself but instead through how such power is abused by those who wield it.  Socialism, as engineered by Adolf Hitler, was built upon principles of hatred, lies, and the amassment of terrifying power.  Through the bastardization and manipulation of its governing ideals, Hitler's socialism was transformed into an authoritarian machinery for total war.

Was Adolf Hitler a literal, fire-breathing demon then?  No, he was human, just as flesh and blood as any man.  Moreover, he commanded the inherent qualities essential for any effective leader - public charisma, an indomitable inner drive, and an uncanny ability of persuasion and motivation.  It is all the more reprehensible and unconscionable then that this man chose to apply his leadership attributes to the service of violence and destruction rather than towards altruism and cooperation.

No man is evil, alone.  But, a single individual, given a position of great power and given a people too indifferent to question the morality and sincerity of his leadership, indeed can destabilize nations and plunge entire continents into the tragedy of war.  For a people to blindly accept or allow such a dictated path is criminal in its complacency and perhaps lays the culpability of subsequent deeds not merely upon one individual but perhaps on the conscience of an entire nation.  However one chooses to define evil, is inaction or complacency not perhaps one such incarnation?  While we as a common race should not be defined by the mistakes of generations past, if we continue to allow the repercussions of those errors to persist into modern society, do we not in some small way become as guilty as our forefathers?

Errors of the past are not easily rectified.  We must ensure that such shameful matters are not so easily repeated.  History has taught us this very lesson.  That, then, is the true eschatological message imparted by Downfall.  The grave mistakes of the past must not in good conscience be suffered to occur again, and if we as a global community cannot learn from our former mistakes or recognize the contemporary manifestations of these tragedies, then how have we in any way evolved for the better?  If war, hatred, and violence are to define human existence forevermore, then our downfall is assured, as much now as in the past or in some cataclysmic near future.

Video ***

Downfall is shown in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen format.  The somber hues are muted with a realistic if grayish color palette and a hint of graininess.  Image details are otherwise sharp with fine resolution.

Audio ****

The German 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is quite dynamic, with a wide spatial definition at times to recreate the ambience of perpetual combat surrounding the characters.  Downfall is a war film, and this DVD's pounding audio track seldom allows audiences forget that.

Features ****

"Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer."

(One people, one empire, one leader.)

Every generation or so, a great German film emerges to recount the horrors of World War II from a German perspective.  The 1980's had Das Boot.  A decade later, there was Stalingrad.  The new millennium brings us Downfall.  In the hour-long documentary included on this disc, The Making-of Downfall, we learn not only about the production of this monumental film but also about the true history that inspired it.  The actors discuss how they approached their difficult roles, and we even see how Bruno Ganz is transformed into Hitler.  There are many background clips from location filming in Petersburg and on the bunker set itself; there are even glimpses of scenes not included in the final cut of the film.

Also on the disc are five cast & crew interviews.  Director Oliver Hirschbiegel (4 min.) praises the work of Bruno Ganz.  Writer Melissa Muller (8 min.) discusses her co-authorship of the Traudl Junge biography "Till the Last Minute" that was the basis for Downfall.  Bruno Ganz (6 min.) describes the inherent difficulties of portraying a man many consider to be the most evil personality of the twentieth century.  Alexandra Maria Lara (2 min.) theorizes how the young and impressionable Traudl Junge, like many otherwise-decent Germans at the time, might have been seduced by the sheer magnetism of Hitler's personality.  Juliane Köhler (2 min.) describes her own beliefs about what attracted Eva Braun to Hitler.

Lastly, there is a director commentary by Oliver Hirschbiegel.  Keep in mind that Downfall is nearly three hours in length, so allot plenty of time if you wish to hear Hirschbiegel's entire commentary.  Hirschbiegel talks about the historic context of the film, particularly in terms of the weaponry of the battle for Berlin and the state of the collapsing Nazi regime and the people at the time.  Hirschbiegel provides a great amount of background information about the film's numerous historic figures, both major and minor, many of whom he identifies.  Viewers who have forgotten their high school history will find this commentary invaluable, particularly as the epic scope of the film and the large cast can seem quite intimidating at times.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002) is the ideal companion piece for this film.  It features the real Traudl Junge discussing the actual events depicted in Downfall.

Summary:

Downfall is a nihilistic and depressing film and is certainly not for the weak-hearted.  But perhaps it will impart invaluable lessons about the inherently violent nature of humanity and whether we as a people are truly doomed or still capable of goodness and still worthy of self-forgiveness.

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