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Film Review


(April 1, 2005) Hi, Just returned from the most powerful film that I have seen in many years: Downfall. This is the first look by a German film maker at the final 10 days of Hitler and the Third Reich. It takes place largely in Hitler's bunker complex underneath the Chancellery in Berlin, and the film maker, Oliver Hirschbiegel, lets us see and hear what everyone in the bunker experiences. The film begins with a brief scene in 1942, when Hitler selects Traudl Junge, an attractive 22 year old woman, to be his personal secretary. She is thrilled and flattered. The film then moves directly to the end of April, 1945, in the bunker, as the Russians are surrounding Berlin. The concussions of incoming Russian artillery are a constant background sound.

We gradually meet most of the Nazi hierarchy: Goering, Himmler, Speer, Goebbels, Donitz, Jodl, and others that only those who have studied this period would recognize. And of course Hitler and his soon to be bride, Eva Braun. But the film focuses most closely on Hitler, Eva Braun, and Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge. Bruno Ganz is absolutely brilliant as Hitler, who becomes more and more agitated, depressed, irrational, and prone to tantrums. He orders non-existent armies to advance, curses his generals for their cowardice, and is contemptuous of the German people, who didn't deserve him as their leader, and orders Berlin razed. All of the real heroes are dead, he says, and those Germans still living are unworthy of life. He says that his greatest monument will be his war against "the poisons of world Jewery", but little is said about the Holocaust directly. Here is pure evil, but perhaps more monstrous, are Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda. They are true believers, idolizing Hitler. They have the opportunity to send their children to safety, but decide to murder them all rather than have the children "grow up in a world without National Socialism". Those scenes, although bloodless, are almost unbearable.

Another principal character is a SS doctor, who remains behind to help the wounded after his unit evacuates, and ends up in Hitler's bunker. Although he was apparently a real person, he is also used as a device to see what is happening above ground as the Russians close in and squads of Hitler Youth, 13 and 14 year old children, are used to defend the city and end up being slaughtered. We also see bands of SS killers, hanging civilians whom they judge not sufficiently pro Nazi. We see makeshift underground hospitals, with scenes like those from our own Civil War, with limbs sawed off, falling into baskets full of amputated body parts. It is horror piled upon horror, and the camera is unflinching. There are drunken orgies, and many officers kill themselves in the last hours. The film does not end with Hitler and Eva's suicides. Many try to escape through the Russian lines west to the Americans, including Hitler's secretary.

There are two codas: a riveting five minute segment from Blind Spot, the documentary released in 2002, a prolonged interview with Traudl Junge, then in her 80's. She died later that year. The second coda is a series of photographs and an explanation of each principal character's fate after the surrender on the 8th of May. Both codas are fascinating and haunting.

The acting is outstanding in every case. The cinematography is brilliant, and the music, although sparing and muted, is beautiful and pairs well. Much of the dialog is taken from eyewitness accounts and from Traudl Junge's book. I have rarely seen anything that seemed so authentic, from the weaponry and uniforms, to the dust, blood, and smell of war. Downfall is a long film, 150 minutes, but every minute is compelling and frighteningly real. I left, exhausted, and knowing that I had seen something that will still be important 50 years from now. This is a very powerful, often disturbing film, but it ranks among the best that I seen in the past few years. A few critics were fearful that this film would somehow "humanize" Hitler and the Nazis. No danger of that. Another said that this was the finest film ever made about World War II. I agree.

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