Downfall: Hitler and the end of the Third Reich [Der Untergang](10/10)

by Tony Medley

How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,

In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

Cassius, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I

William Shakespeare

That’s what I kept thinking as I went to see “Downfall,” which is a retelling of Hitler’s final days in his bunker in April, 1945.  We’ve seen it so many times and it’s never very compelling, generally Hollywood rubbish. When you sit through the 2:30 of “Downfall,” however, you feel as if you are a fly on the wall of the real bunker with the real Hitler, the real Eva Braun, the real Joseph Goebbels, the real everything.

Bruno Ganz is as close to Adolph Hitler without getting the real thing. At one time he’s quiet, soft spoken, and considerate. The next minute he’s a raving maniac, yelling and screaming. He is considerate of his secretary but cold-bloodedly orders the murder of his closest associates.

This film captures the chaos of the closing days of the Soviet assault on Berlin, the atmosphere of the bunker, the hopelessness of its inhabitants. This doesn’t seem like a movie, it’s more like something that has been shot with  hidden cameras of things as they were actually occurring.

I saw “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary,” (2003) which was a spellbinding interview with Traudl Jung, the woman who was Hitler’s secretary from 1942-45. Alexandra Maria Lara looks and acts just as the real Jung must have looked and acted a half century before the interview with her was filmed.

Images from this film become seared in your mind’s eye; Hitler forcing a poison pill down his German Shepherd’s throat, Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouche) cajoling her six young children to take a sedative to put them to sleep so she could subsequently force a cyanide capsule into their sleeping mouths, the fanaticism of some of Hitler’s minions.

Kudos to director Oliver Hirschbiegel for a tasteful presentation of the violence. Unlike modern Hollywood that glamorizes and details gore for shock value, only once do we see someone blow his brains out, right at the end of the film. At other crucial times, like the suicides of Hitler and Eva Braun and Joseph and Magda Goebbels, the deeds are done off camera. In fact, when Goebbels is shooting Magda and himself, the camera discreetly pans to the left to the troops watching and we only hear the two shots.

Sure, some things about World War II have been overdone. Clearly there is a surfeit of films about the Holocaust and Hitler’s bunker. But even if you have had your fill of these films, “Downfall” is one not to be missed. (In German with subtitles)

February 26, 2005