Friday, August 21, 2015

At the Movies: "Downfall"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Downfall (Der Untergang)
Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004.

imbd: 8.3 (imdb 250: #117)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91% Fresh

Downfall is a dramatization of the last days of Adolph Hitler. It is mostly played out in the famous bunker underneath Berlin, with some subplots taking place up on the surface as the city is shelled, bombed, and eventually claimed by the advancing Soviet army.

If you spend much time on the internet, you have seen one scene of Downfall many times – this is the source of the much-parodied scene where Hitler is given some bad news (Twitter is down, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl, what have you), asks everyone but the generals to leave the room, and then explodes in an epic rant. My assumption going in was that this scene would be the climax, the culminating madness erupting after an hour or two of building tension. But that was underrating the film’s verisimilitude. Hitler was delusional and volatile by any definition well before his last descent into the bunker, and that famous scene is actually quite near the beginning of the film. What the rest of the movie is “about,” maybe, is what life is like in a tightly confined place under threat of imminent destruction and under the absolute authority of someone who is barking mad. Not surprisingly, life under those conditions is not much fun.

As historical reconstruction, Downfall is about as well-made as a film could possibly be. Bruno Ganz, the actor tasked with playing one of the strangest yet most recognizable figures in history, comes through with flying colors; I’ve read that if you know German well his imitation of Hitler’s accent and speaking style is kind of chilling. The strange world of the bunker is rendered almost exactly according to the historical record. Here’s my evidence: there is a whole world of history buffs out there who wouldn’t be able to stop themselves going over this film with a fine-tooth comb, and, per the imdb “goofs” page, here’s the level of things they’ve been able to come up with:
When Hitler is pinning medals on the Hitler Youth tank busters he moves right to left. In real life this was the last time Hitler was seen on video and he moved left to right.

Thomas Kretschmann portrayed SS Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, but his collar insignia is that of an SS Brigadeführer. Fegelein attained the rank of SS Obergruppenführer before being executed. His collar insignia should have a diamond below the leaves.

If that’s the worst that the history buffs can do, we have here a film of really impressive verisimilitude.

Downfall was criticized, inevitably, for humanizing or even glorifying Adolph Hitler, showing him in moments of kindness to his secretaries, complementing the cook, petting his dog, and so on. Worrying about this sort of thing is probably a healthy instinct, but if you are going to create an accurate document about Adolph Hitler, you can’t get around that he was a human being, that he had a nice touch with the staff, was good with kids, liked his dog, and so on. As a historical interpretation, this is another thing that the film gets right.

This brings us to another, more interesting question: why make a film that recapitulates the last days of Hitler in the first place? I have an instinct to say that it’s an unhealthy, unwholesome thing to put the mad dictator on the big screen as an entertainment product. How on Earth could it be wholesome for me to watch a careful reconstruction of Frau Goebbels systematically murdering her own six children, since life after the Third Reich would not be worth living?

And yet. And yet, I did find Downfall entertaining. Not entertaining in the hearty, jolly, rollicking fashion of a Fury Road, for instance – a movie which, just incidentally, probably has a much higher on-screen body count then does Downfall – but entertaining in the sense of being gripping. Downfall offers us the undeniable fascination of playing voyeur to almost unimaginably strange events, and seems to invite us to consider why fellow humans who presumably share some of our own basic life experiences can act in what seem to be very outlandish ways.

For instance: when everybody in the room knows that Hitler is literally delusional, and everyone knows that everyone else knows the same thing, what social forces keep them from acting on the knowledge? Does some form of this bizarre dynamic ever occur in more everyday settings? I think it does, and that’s something very interesting to think about. When Maria Goebbels poisons her children, does she wholly believe that it is a righteous act? Or, is she dismissing her moral qualms (which is to say, some dazzlingly obvious moral truths) as weaknesses, and suppressing them, and if so why? Does she, in that moment, feel like she must act in a way that is consistent with earlier decisions no matter what the cost? And if so why? Big questions about what it is to be human is one thing that you can reasonably ask of an artistic production, and the bizarre scenario relived in Downfall offers plenty of them.

Prognosis: Masterfully made, no fun at all, but terribly engrossing, Downfall is a serious film that needs to be approached with a serious frame of mind. It is closer in spirit to a popular history text than a novel. Poor choice for a “date movie.”

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

1 comment:

Christine M. said...

Bruno Ganz is probably my favorite actor. If you can play an angel in Wings of Desire (and its sequel Far Away So Close), a suicidal Icelandic waiter in Bread and Tulips, AND Hitler, AND be brilliant in all of them, that's some serious acting chops.