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    Bunker mentality

    "Downfall" is a brisk, riveting account of the mad swirl of events in Hitler's bunker as the Allies closed in.


    We start with the human Hitler.

    Original title: Der Untergang.
    Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel.
    Written by: Bernd Eichinger.
    Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Khler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich, Thomas Kretschmann.
    Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann.
    Edited by: Hans Funck.
    In Germany with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site | German site
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100

    Der Fhrer is in need of a new secretary, and a benchful of good, fresh-faced Aryan girls from the provinces are lined up outside his office. The door opens and the girls try to peek in as if John Kennedy, the Beatles and Jesus are all in there together. The man who comes out is none of these. He's a smallish fellow with bad hair, a bad mustache, a bit of a stoop — and the hint of a kindly smile. The girls lap up his attention.

    This beginning may give us an uneasy feeling, because we know we're looking into the face of incomparable evil. But they don't. Like a lot of Germans — especially 20-ish ones who've grown up with nothing else — these girls LOVE Hitler. And this opening does something interesting — it takes us down a certain path, starting in a time when the Fhrer and his people were on top of the world, and ending with the collapse of both the leader and the led.

    After this beginning, "Downfall" focuses tightly on the last days in Hitler's bunker. (It's based partly on the book "Inside Hitler's Bunker" and the secretary's memoir "Bis zur letzten Stunde.") Outside, bombs are falling, the Russians are approaching almost unchecked, young boys are taking up arms in place of their lost fathers, and a vicious strain of lawless vigilantism is spawning in the Berlin night. Germany is steadily losing its mind. And inside the bunker, the unstable mind that guides the country is cracking up as well. Hitler clings to the fantasy of ultimate victory, despite the evidence piling up at ground level.

    "The bombing has an advantage," he boasts to Albert Speer. "It's much easier to haul away rubble than tear down buildings! Once we win the war, reconstruction will begin very quickly!"

    Hitler spends his last days commanding armies that no longer exist except on his own maps, and raging at anyone disloyal enough to disobey his impossible orders. High Nazi officials, with their stolid wives and children, maintain the glorious ideals of the noble German society they've destroyed outside their noble, concrete oasis — while lower military officers abandon all pretense and spend their last days sharing high-class booze and low gallows humor. ("Germany has become a nation of warehouses. 'Where's my house?' 'Where's my house?'") The film paints us an increasingly chaotic portrait of official irreality amid the swirling cyclone of defeat.

    "Downfall" gives us a very interesting glimpse into the pathology of a man, a regime and a nation. Hitler is just human and just sane enough to be more than a caricature, yet rabid enough to epitomize the pathology at the center of Nazi society. Bruno Ganz (best known from "Wings of Desire") pretty nearly is Hitler, perfectly matching the man's look, voice and many moods — kindly, deluded and murderously enraged. His alternately manic and brooding nature, combined with a number of perceptible tics — including signs of Parkinson's disease — gives him the air of a German Nixon or Captain Queeg.

    As conditions get more and more desperate for the architects of evil inside their concrete command post, the pace cranks steadily upward, everything being done with crisp, "West Wing"-like efficiency. The film does not try to answer the eternal questions about the Nazis — the how and the why — but it does pin you to your seat and give a powerful impression of the precise, ruthless, sometimes psychotic whirlwind at the center of the Nazi machine.

    FEBRUARY 18, 2005

    Reader comments on Downfall:

  • Der Untergang (Downfall)   from Priya Bede, Apr 15, 2005
  • whitewashing history   from jake fisher, Apr 25, 2005
  • Re: whitewashing history   from jude, Jun 24, 2005
  • wake-up call   from Dorothea, May 1, 2005
  • true to form   from charlesmartinez1, Jun 4, 2006
  • Really good   from Ana Sinohui, Mar 21, 2007

  • Post a comment on "Downfall"