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Posted by on Feb 10, 2007 in Arts & Entertainment | 0 comments

Guest DVD Review (Part III): Downfall

NOTE: The Moderate Voice publishes posts by guest writers from time to time. This is the FINAL part of a three part review written by Dan Schneider of the movie Downfall. PART ONE IS HERE. PART TWO 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

Much of this lack of the substantive inner circle of Nazism can be pawned off on the meager screenplay, by Bernd Eichinger, and director Oliver Hirschbiegel, rather than the actors. They adapted the material found in Junge’s memoirs, Bis Zur Letzten Stunde- written by Melissa Müller, and the book Inside Hitler’s Bunker, by Joachim Fest. The actors merely had to make do with what was tossed to them. Yet, the larger problem the film faced was not how to squeeze so many Nazis into the 155 minute film, but where to place the focus.

Let’s face it; dramatically speaking, no one really gives a damn about the suffering of Berliners in the final days of the Third Reich. People are only interested in Hitler and the handful of people about him. In short, the dramatic center of the film is an insight into what made Hitler Hitler. And we never get that. The film never even attempts, for instance, what poet W.D. Snodgrass did in his long poem, The Führer Bunker- to paint Hitler from the inside out. All we get are the externals- at which Ganz is superb. But the writing fails, for no amount of shaking digits nor psychotic bluster can disguise the probing lack within.

Given the nature of the last days of Hitler- the subject of prior films, and the manifest drama of it, is it too much to expect a bit more art and insight? The film could have lost a good forty-five minutes had it stripped away not only the token appearances by Nazi ‘names,’ but also distracting and predictable fictive side stories, such as Peter the Hitler Youth, whose only reason for appearance is to show him (or young Germany) as not irredeemable (and whose scenes with his Nazi disapproving dad border on laughable), or a weary doctor, Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel), patrolling the streets of Berlin to help wounded soldiers and civilians. His only raison d’être is to show that all Germans of that era were not evil; although one wonders why he only sees the rampant suffering when the empire is due to collapse. I guess he knew this was when the cameras were rolling.

There simply needed to be more and deeper Hitler in this film, even if it was just the director’s best guess at what made the tyrant tick. Yes, the Third Reich survived Hitler- by only a little more than a week. So what? Offing the main character, and only character anyone gives a damn about, with over forty minutes, or a quarter of your film, to go, is simply bad dramatic structure. A dramatic climax is virtually doomed to failure when it is reached before 90% of the work has played out. This is Drama 101.

Director Hirschbiegel has countered the charges that he humanized Hitler by stating that showing him as a human makes him more horrifying. True, but what made this tragic antihero horrifying, and why not end on him, the way Roman Polanski ends Repulsion by focusing on the interior of the main murderous character? There’s not even a small attempt to core into the man at the center of the film and history, nor distill him to his essence. At the end, Hitler shows almost as much contempt for the German people as he does Jews and the ‘lower races.’ Would not this be an ‘in’ to the psychology? Instead of exploring the limits of film with daring camera work and dialogue, we get far too much typical Hollywoodian takes of Nazi Germany’s last gasps.

The DVD, from Sony, is in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and features an hour long Making Of Downfall featurette, some interviews with the film’s participants, and an audio commentary from Hirschbiegel. The commentary is a bit too heavy on historical facts and lean on the art of the film. Hirschbiegel admits that many of the scenes are not true, made up, best guesses, or disputed, yet he still goes on and on about the historical verity of the film being supreme- a bit odd.

It is also a bit annoying that Hirschbiegel views this film as something of a redemption, and voices the trite claim that Hitler was the worst killer in world history. Those who suffered under the Khans, the Conquistadores, the Communists, the Colonial powers, King Leopold, etc. might argue well; but movies are about myth, and Hirshbiegel is a German, not a Mongol, after all. Another annoyance is the repetition of the canonical Six Million Jews killed, with no mention of the millions of others killed in the death camps. The sufferings of Gypsies, homosexuals, Roman Catholics, trade unionists, POWs, Communists, etc. in the death camps simply do not mean as much. Nor, apparently do the far many more millions of Poles, Russians, Slavs, British, French, and others killed in Nazi aggressions, which I’m sure has only fed the Holocaust Deniers and Neo-Nazi claims of Jews trying to play politics with the Nazi bodycount. He also offers no explanation as to why the film is so poorly dramatically structured, nor why it is so psychologically fallow- save that he and Ganz felt that the only way to explain a Hitler was that he was a cipher inside. Yet, that sort of reasoning is really just a copout along the lines of those who claim Hitler of being congenitally evil, which Hirschbiegel categorically rejects.

The commentary is in English, though, but unfortunately the film lacks an English dubbed soundtrack to minimize the usually annoying subtitles. On the plus side, the film’s visuals are not at its center, and Ganz, especially, is so good at inflecting Hitlerian nuances in muttered German, that, if only for losing that, this may be the rare foreign film for which subtitles may be preferable. The film’s technical aspects are all superb: production designer Bernd Lepel recreates Hitler’s bunker at Bavaria Studios in superb, believable, and stark detail; cinematographer Rainer Klausmann makes the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia (where the film was shot) look convincingly like 1940s Berlin- albeit aided by digital effects; and even the scoring, by Stephan Zacharias, is not too over the top, as many Nazi themed films tend to be. We know they’re evil and cowardly, and don’t need to have music to cue us in on that fact!

Fortunately, Zacharias gets it. After all, so many Nazis chose suicide than to fight to the end for their beliefs, that one wonders how they ever got so far as they did- perhaps it was the weakness of their opposition, not their strength? That Hitler ended up incinerated, in light of the death camps, is an irony not lost on the film, which shows Hitler’s acolytes seemingly slavering over the flames.

All in all, Downfall is a movie worth seeing, but it is not one that is ‘required viewing’- neither for its art nor its historical value. It rises and falls almost solely on Ganz’s shoulders. To me, the most affecting moments within come when Hitler willfully denies the reality of his nation’s Götterdammerung, and pretends that this or that general will save the day with a brilliant maneuver, at the last moment, to cut off the Russians, and save the war effort.

Anyone watching the recent change of American military leadership in Iraq is familiar with their nation’s leader’s utter refusal to face stubborn facts, and it’s a scary scene- whether or not that leader is a mass murdering psychotic, or merely a clueless frat boy with a God complex. Yet, like many of the other ‘historical’ facts, this intermittent self-delusion is also considered, by most historians, untrue. Hitler is known to have commented after being repulsed at Stalingrad, and also after losing The Battle Of The Bulge, that he knew that an eventual German defeat was unavoidable. These are two more wasted opportunities to core into the man, and these ill wrought fictions- be they of whole characters or scenes with real personages, are ultimately what kill the screenplay. As a side note, it’s worth realizing the fact that the Second World War, despite its horrors and nonpareil bodycount, can now be thought of as the last real war ‘played by the rules’ says much of our species.

That Downfall can succeed as a film, despite some bad acting, and a weak screenplay, also says much for the notion that a single great performance, as well as a historically significant and dramatic enough moment, can overcome abundant mediocrity more easily than a work of fiction can. Bruno Ganz is now the definitive film Hitler, but the definitive portrayal of his true downfall has yet to be made. Where is Ingmar Bergman when you really need him?