NOTE: The Moderate Voice publishes posts by guest writers from time to time. This is the second part of a THREE PART review written by Dan Schneider of the movie Downfall. PART ONE IS HERE. As in the case with our Guest Posts, views expressed reflect the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Moderate Voice.
By Dan Schneider
Some of the weakest parts of the film come from the performances of the other lead characters- the ‘usual suspects’ of Nazi lore.
There is Ulrich Matthes as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Matthes plays Goebbels as an almost insectoid parody of evil- a Nazi at home in a 1950s film, rather than a ‘realistic’ portrayal. He is so gaunt, and his eyes so blackened with hate, that I was reminded of a cut scene from Stone’s Nixon where Sam Waterston’s eyes, as CIA Director Richard Helms, literally blacken with evil. Then, in a scene that is absurd, and widely disputed as ‘fact’ (although the film is widely hailed as being historically accurate- in stark contrast to Stone’s films like JFK and Nixon, which are far more historically accurate than given credit for), Goebbels breaks down and weeps in front of Hitler’s secretary when he asks her to type his final testament, as she types the same from Hitler.
An even more problematic bit of overacting comes from Corinna Harfouch, as Goebbels’ wife, Magda- a Lady Macbeth with more venom but less flair, but bearing an uneasy- if not unintended, resemblance to former First Lady and Senator Hillary Clinton. She’s so distraught over the thought of a world without Nazism that she just has to kill her progeny. The scenes of her plotting to kill her children, then doing so by drugging them asleep, and putting cyanide capsules in their mouths, is widely hailed as ‘bravura’ acting. I disagree. She basically plays Magda as a one note evil bitch throughout the film, save when she fawns to Hitler. This may be historically accurate, but does not require much in the way of acting.
Incidentally, the whole manner of death of the Goebbels children is also total speculation, and again voids claims of historical accuracy, although makes me wonder if there may have been some sly jab at the Clintonian take on mothering children by including it? I doubt so, since Hirschbiegel, in the DVD extras and commentary seems firmly PC. Bearing that in mind, the real reason for the inclusion seems to be to show that Nazis (and Magda, in particular) wereâ€¦.yes, evil!
That brings one to Hitler’s secretary, the de facto heroine of the film, twenty-five year old Traudl Junge, whose real filmed comments bookend this film, in excerpts from the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (Im Toten Winkel: Hitlers Sekretarin). As played by Alexandra Maria Lara she’s a mere cipher, which, again, may be historically accurate, but does not push one’s acting skills, nor elevate the film. By film’s end we get a fictive account of her ‘brave march’ through Russian lines and gallivanting on a bicycle with a reprehensible preteen example of the Hitler Youth, Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia)- a fictive character with little in the way of emotional nor narrative arc.
Yet, perhaps the most praised performance, outside of Ganz’s as Hitler, is that of Juliane KÃ¶hler as Eva Braun. While better than either Harfouch or Lara, KÃ¶hler has only one real scene that tests her as an actress, and that is when she pleads to Hitler to spare the life of her brother-in-law, SS-GruppenfÃ¼hrer Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), a rouÃ© who cares little of Nazi ideology, and only of personal advancement. Hitler refuses to stop his execution, and she falls meekly into line. It’s a good scene- despite verging on weak parody, but over the top emotionalism- while it may win awards, is not equivalent to good acting. Other than that scene, there are a few better scenes of her smoking with Junge and the other ‘girls of the Bunker’- Junge and Gerda Christian (Birgit Minichmayr), but mostly her role consists of playing the good, Aryan party girl. The one moment that seems ‘real’ comes when she admits to Junge that she kicks Hitler’s dog, Blondi, when he is not around, so that it acts odd around people and annoys Hitler with its moods- who merely muses as to his dog’s reactions.
The rest of the featured Nazis come and go so quickly that to call their roles ‘well acted’ is kind of silly. Heino Ferch plays Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, and widely known as closest confidante to Hitler, as well being his biggest bootlicker. He is solid, but his ‘great scene’ consists of him telling Hitler that he disobeyed the FÃ¼hrer’s order to destroy German infrastructure. Hitler says little, refuses to shake his hand, and Speer gets away with it. Unfortunately, the scene never really happened. I don’t really care of its historicity, from a dramatic point of view, if it had worked well, but it’s sort of predictable, and self-serving for the character, and his been widely debunked on more than one occasion as mere self-serving hagiography that allowed Speer to avoid a death sentence at the Nuremberg Trials.
Other notable Nazi scum, like SS head Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) and Hitler’s right hand man Martin Bormann (Thomas Thieme) are given so little screen time that they seem to have been included merely as ‘guest villains.’ The former spends his role seemingly scheming to sell Hitler out to American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and worrying over whether to shake his hand or greet him with the Nazi salute, and the latter’s appearance was so brief that had I not checked IMDB I would not have even realized his character was onscreen at all. Hermann GÃ¶ring, the Nazi head of the Luftwaffe, is only seen I the film’s ending, which recounts the fates of all the parties. This, however, is explicable since he was on the outs with Hitler in the final few years.
The final part of this review will run tomorrow.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.