Downfall (Germany/Italy/Austria, 2004)

Downfall_2005_Movie_Poster_4_bxnbw_movieposters101(com)Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel. As per that old chestnut—“If you haven’t seen a movie in 5 years, you haven’t seen it”—I decided to review this one, even though I rented it from the Blockbuster back when it came out. Maybe it’s all the WWII in Colour, maybe it’s the Dan Carlin, but this one seemed really appealing all of a sudden. And it’s true—even though I’ve “seen” this movie, I totally didn’t remember the drama with the secretary Traudl Junge, who is basically the entire movie, nor did I remember that great performance the actor gave for Albert Speer, nor the great subplot with the dissenting Fegelein, nor any of the other amazing small performances and micro-character arcs. And I definitely didn’t remember the great micro-arc of the little kid Peter—totally fictional, but totally metaphorical of the young generation. I totally did remember the amazing performance of Bruno Ganz as Hitler, and the amazing performance of Juliane Köhler as Eva Braun, and I remembered the disturbing and powerful performances of those actors playing Josef Goebbels and his wife, how that wife stole the show basically, and how painful and bizarre it is watching her poison her own kids. This review risks descending into just reading the names of all the actors and marvelling at how great they were in this movie, so I’ll save some time and just refer you to the wiki page. This movie definitely makes me want to do more research, look more into this man, this period, the social context, the political context, the nitty gritty details of all the individuals. It makes me want to read Traudl Junge’s own book and watch the documentary about her, both completed just weeks or days before her death. (For that matter, it makes me want to dig into that 1000 page Hitler book by Ian Kershaw that’s been weighing down my bookshelf for all these years!) But also, this makes me want to check out more Bruno, and more representations of the war in German cinema. Because, for my whole life, I’ve been watching how Americans and Brits and Canadians viewed the war, but what’s really interesting, of course, is not how the victors paint history, but how the defeated do so. And especially in this case, the “defeated” nearly took down the entire world with them—they certainly changed the world utterly by their actions, they certainly took 6 million Jewish people with them, they certainly took millions (is it 30 million?) Soviet citizens with them, and they utterly destroyed and devastated their own country and their own population, to the extent that it took until 2004 for a cultural climate to exist where a German filmmaker could begin looking at this man as a man and not as a monster. That’s the really juicy part for me, what’s usually lacking in cinematic depictions of Hitler, the modest fact that this situation did not happen from a wormhole out of Hell opening up—it happened from the actions of human beings, from the weaknesses of human institutions, from the nasty parts of human cultures, etc. That is why this period remains such a fascinating and important period, because it remains a depressingly and horrifyingly pertinent and relevant lesson for us, here, today, not some other time, not some other society, not some other group of people—us, here, now. And certainly, Hirschbiegel runs the risk of those accusations that the film is too soft on these characters, that in humanizing them, the film runs the risk of letting them off the hook. But again, I think it’s a mark of how much progress Germany has made that, in 2004, it could afford to be brave enough to depict Hitler as a pathetic, angry, small man, possibly suffering Parkinson’s, who failed utterly and completely, and whose only accomplishment that could be positively salvaged, his only consolation to his failure, was the worst act of mass murder in history. It’s the open question with all accusations in cinema—does the depiction of bad people inherently engender empathy in those people? At the moment, I lean towards the audience making up their mind, the good old Taxi Driver test—if you’re a rabid, conservative nutbag, then Travis Bickle is a simplistic cowboy hero, but only if you’re disposed to ignore all the clues the film is giving you to come to the opposite conclusion. In this case: sure, Hitler and the top Nazi brass—all of whom, the director points out in the commentary, are responsible for awful and blood-curdling crimes themselves individually—as frightened, flawed human beings with personal anxieties, worrying about their families, worrying about their career, their commitment to the cause, to saving their own skin, etc, etc. But on the other hand, that’s reality for you. Those criminal fucks were also human beings with personal anxieties, etc, etc, and if a person watching Bruno and his shaking hand thinks “ohhh poor Hitler, I wish he’d won”, then that’s surely a failure of the educational system and of our society as a whole, much more than a failure of the filmmakers to fulfil some pedagogical role (which, in the world of cinema, is debatable anyways!). Ack, look at me. I’d have been better off just listing the names of the cast members after all.

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One response to “Downfall (Germany/Italy/Austria, 2004)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

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