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"Downfall"
Reviewed by: Wayne A. Klein & Kim Anehall
Genre: Drama
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Languages German
Subtitles English
Length 155 min
Rating R
Release Date August 2, 2005
Studio Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
Commentary: “with director Oliver Hirschbiegel”
Documentaries: “The Making of Downfall”
Featurettes: None
Filmography/Biography: None
Interviews: “Cast and Crew Interviews”
Trailers/TV Spots: None
Alternate/Deleted Scenes: None
Music Video: None
Other: None
Cast and Crew: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich
Written By: Bernd Eichinger
Produced By: Bernd Eichinger
Directed By: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Music: Stephan Zacharias
The Review:

"Kim" Review-

Downfall takes place during Adolf Hitler's last ten days in power before he committed suicide. This is not the first film that depicts Hitler's last days, as Hitler: The Last Ten Day's (1973) and The Bunker (1981) have also displayed the last ten days of his life. However, Downfall is the first German production where Hitler is the main character. In the past great actors such as Anthony Hopkins and Alec Guinness portrayed this Nazi despot, but this time the audience gets to see the brilliant German speaking actor Bruno Ganz provide a strong performance as the Fuhrer. Previously the audience could have experienced his brilliant acting in Wings of Desire (1987) as a peaceful angel. The films success rests in Ganz's strong performance, as he provides an authentic depiction of the notorious Nazi leader. ***

Several reviews and comments have been made in regards to how Hitler is occasionally portrayed as a caring person, which can be understood in regards to the war crimes that he ordered. However, it provides a contrast in his character that accentuates the madness behind the Nazi regime that ended up killing millions of people, and started a war that cost almost 50 million lives. Bruno Ganz shows a beaten man who feebly attempts to stand strong through flaming rage and screaming ultimatums based on his own ludicrous convictions that many seemed to share in the bunker where he spent his last ten days. Ironically, the gray, claustrophobic rooms of the bunker become an unintentional symbol for Hitler's narrow-minded convictions, which were about to reach thier doom at the end of April 1945. ***

The film opens in 1942 when Hitler hired his secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), who stayed with Hitler until his death. Her memoirs and a documentary, Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (2002), served as the backbone to the film. After the opening, the film quickly jumps forward to the near end of the war when Hitler and his closest people fortified themselves inside a bunker located in the middle of Berlin. Much has been documented in history books in regards to Hitler's charismatic persona and his ability to get people to follow him. Despite his strong magnetic charisma the audience gets to witness how people around Hitler begin to sneak away, as the Soviet Red Army is approaching while bombarding the city of Berlin without consideration of the civil population. ***

In a first thought Downfall seems to be focused on Hitler, but with more careful consideration the film depicts the people of Germany and how they were affected by the Nazi regime and the fall of the Third Reich. Children considered Hitler as a hero, and into the end when soldiers where in short supply children were used to fill the depleted ranks in the diminishing Nazi war machine. On the streets, people were murdered for being suspected as Communist sympathizers if they did not fight against the looming Red Army. Yet, people believed that Hitler might have had a triumph card to play, as the people believed that they were suppose to be superior according to what Hitler had preached to them. ***

There was no triumph card, as Hitler continued to command his generals to move imaginary troops, execute orders of the destruction of Berlin, and show no regard for civilian life within Berlin or the rest of Germany. Cruel comments made by Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and Hitler, as they blamed the German people for the fall of the Third Reich. Goebbels mentioned that he did not care whether the German people died, as they were to blame for electing the Nazi's into power and fulfilling the Nazi regime's goal. Hitler infers that the German people are not fit to survive if they are not strong enough to survive. In a sense, Hitler's persona radiates blame on others, as his leadership could not be faulty, only the incompetence of the people around him could be to blame. ***

This notion of Nazi superiority was also heavily imbedded within Goebbels' wife, Magda (Corinna Harfouch), who firmly believed that there was no other right government than National Socialism. Magda displays her strong beliefs through having a chemist concoct a sleeping mixture that she makes her children drink with the intention of killing them. The reason for killing her children is that she believes that the end of National Socialism will also be the end of the world. After Mrs. Goebbels has put the children asleep she slips into their small bunker room and kills the children one by one through small cyanide ampoules followed by playing a game of solitaire in silence. ***

In the backdrop of Hitler's vicious ideology and neglect towards human life it might be hard to understand that he might have been caring, but this caring had a personal purpose. Hitler displays his kindness to those who show him loyalty and progress, as he shows kindness to his cook, the secretary, and Goebbels who remain next to him like a faithful dog. Maybe it explains Hitler's strong affection for dogs, as they could be manipulated and taught to do what he wanted such as sitting. Hitler's dog Blondi, a German Shepard, occasionally acted in an unusual manner, which the audience learns from Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) Hitler's social companion, who kicked the dog when no one was watching, as she could not stand the dog. In a simplified perspective, the world should be run like a kennel according to Hitler, as people should be trained to think and do only as the Nazi regime dictated. The training includes assimilation into a single-minded perspective, which was accomplished through severe punishment and education of the youth. ***

In the simplified perspective of a kennel the audience should ponder the notion of true freedom, as people continue in modern day to push their values, beliefs, and morals onto the laps of others. Diversity refers to a complex accumulation of ideas originated from a wide range of backgrounds where each notion is equally valued, as each person with each notion is unique and never truly identical due to the progress of education and experiences that form values, beliefs, and morals. Hitler's version of the world suggests to punish people until they do what they are suppose to and then reward them for the actions that are desired according to the doctrine. Ultimately, Downfall offers a dark historical illustration of what happen, which should still be contemplated in today's society in order to prevent similar events from taking place in the future. *** ---

"Wayne's" Review-

Monsters are seductive bullies. They entice their victims into playing along before ultimately disemboweling them or turning them into monsters. Whether these monsters are child molesters or military leaders like Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin the mechanics of seduction are the same; build trust, bring others into their circle of insanity and then destroy them. Monsters aren’t monsters without motivation; they don’t commit horrible acts and atrocities just to do them. Monsters can have the allure of a pop star sucking in both victims and acolytes. There’s no madness to the method by which they perpetrate the evil that they do. They do it all with a cunning and playing on the weakness in humanity that makes this all the more frghtening. By humanizing Adolph Hitler and his cronies from the Nazi regime, writer-producer Bernd Eichinger and director Oliver Hirschbiegel don’t make Hitler any more sympathetic; instead they manage to reduce the stature of a monster and make him appear to be what he was—a charismatic, desperate, opportunist and sociopath who mercilessly raped the country he was “fighting” for and the rest of the world.

A dark, disturbing but powerful drama “Downfall” tells the story of the last days of the Third Reich from the point of view of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who became Hitler’s secretary in 1942 and stayed with him until his suicide on May 7, 1945. We initially see a charismatic leader three years before the end of the war who seems in control of an empire swallowing the surrounding world calmly into madness. Hitler has the polite manners of any politician or military leader and that’s all the patriotic and naïve Traudl initially sees as she interacts with the Furher.

We jump forward three years later as Berlin and much of Germany lay in ruins and as enemy forces surround Hitler and his generals. Hitler retreats to his bunker alternating between insane rants at the Jews and the German people and imaginary forces that will ride in like the cavalry to rescue the leaders of the Nazi party. Bruno Ganz (“Wings of Desire”, “The American Friend”) givs a stunningly complex performance as Hitler. He never resorts to imitation instead trying to dig to the core of this truly evil person. The film also portrays that there was humanity even in those who followed Hitler blindly. When Albert Speer the architect of the greatest monuments in Nazi Germany and a confidant of Hitler’s realizes how hopeless the war is he doesn’t excuse what he’s done; instead he tries to get those who unwittingly stepped into Hitler’s circle of evil to leave. Taking away the humanity of these evil people and making them mythic monsters with claws and fangs doesn’t allow us to understand them. Demonizing them gives them a stature that they don’t deserve.

As director Oliver Hirschbiegel/st1:Sn> states in an interview the biggest mistake is to portray Hitler as someone who has lost his marbles from the very beginning. It doesn’t explain how a man like Hitler could seduce an entire nation into backing his racist, evil policies. We watch in horror as Gobbels’ wife gives her children a sleeping tonic so that she can poison them as they sleep. She can’t envision these innocents growing up in a world without Hitler or National Socialism. There are small moments of compassion that occur throughout the movie (as when the German General Monke tells Hitler that they must surrender because of the possible civilian causalities. Hitler replies that the civilians get what they deserve.), but this is, on the whole, a movie about people without conscience who live in a morally black and white world where evil is ll a matter of perspective. Not everyone will want to watch this deeply engrossing tale but anyone that wants to have a better understanding of the nature of evil in humanity will want to glimpse inside Hitler’s bunker during the last days of World War II. ---

Image and Sound:

Kim---Downfall is presented in anamorphic widescreen, which comes in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The image is dark due to the lighting used in shooting the film, as most of it takes place underground. There is also a high level of grain, but this is the result of the film stock used while shooting the film. Unfortunately can the viewer easily discover some edge enhancement, but it should not deter the viewer from viewing the film. *** It is a German speaking film, which only offers English subtitles. Aurally, it offers a solid experience, as there is a good use of all speakers in the Dolby Digital 5.1. The surround sound efficiently heightens the suspense through the bombardment of approaching Russians, and the shots fired by machine guns. *** ---

Wayne-----There’s quite a bit of film grain giving the film a gritty realistic look. That’s a good thing as this isn’t some sort of war fantasy. The colors of uniforms pop and crackle as they appear on the screen while those scenes set in the bunker have a muted, smudged quality conveying the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere of those who have closed themselves off from the world. Sony has done a marvelous job of capturing the original character of the film in this high definition transfer. The 5.1 sound captures the insanity of a city under siege with explosions and sound effects of gunfire well placed across all five speakers of the 5.1 mix. ---

The Extras:

Kim ---- Downfall comes only with two extras: (1) The Making of Downfall and (2) Cast and Crew Interviews. However, the Making of Downfall documentary presents a terrific cinematic experience by itself. Throughout this hour-long documentary, inserted scenes from the film and reflections from the cast deliver a very exhaustive perspective of how the actors had to approach their characters. As the documentary unfolds, it begins to unveil a more serious notion of how the German cast had to struggle with their shameful past while shooting the film. It is almost as good as the film itself. In the second feature the audience can find five different interviews. These interviews are all German with English subtitles, which go into great detail about the theme Hitler and his last days. The most interesting interview is with Bruno Ganz who expresses his concerns and thoughts about providing an honest portrayal of Hitler. *** ---

 

Wayne----We get a marvelous making of documentary that allows the filmmakers to discuss their motivation in making the movie. The opening shot of the documentary shows a fly over of Berlin after the war; it’s a series of burned out buildings with rubble strewn everywhere. One of the jokes said by an officer in the film rings true with irony; the actors also weigh in the characters they play and their approach. Happily all tried to find their core of humanity before expanding on the horrible acts they committed. The documentary like the movie is entirely in German with subtitles in English. At roughly an hour it’s a comprehensive look at both the film and the world that inspired it. ***

There are also interviews with many of the cast members and director of the film where they discuss what attracted them to the project. Melissa Muller co-author of one of the source books for the movie (which was written with Traudl Junge) also discusses how she first came into contact with Traudl Junge (who died in 2002 but also appears in two brief interviews that bookend the film). Muller’s interview to me was the most interesting only because we get to hear the director and cast weigh in on their characters in the documentary and this is the first we hear from Muller. ---

Commentary:

Kim---The director Oliver Hirschbiegel speaks in English in this commentary, which is equally interesting and captivating as the extras. Hirschbiegel talks freely, yet is very organized in his thoughts while explaining how he wanted to capture the truth of Adolf Hitler. This is commentary is both informative in regards to history and filmmaking, which gives this further value to most viewers. ***

Wayne----Director Oliver Hirschbiegel provides a fascinating commentary track in lightly accented English. Hirschbiegel covers everything from recreating war torn Berlin, various casting decisions to the types of weapons the German army used and their history. It’s a fascinating commentary and probably could have been improved only with the interaction of a historian.

Final Words:

Kim---Downfall is one of those films that will keep the audience’s attention from the beginning to the end through its powerful theme. It is definitely one of those DVDs that must exist in every DVD collection, as it will bring a terrific cinematic experience that will force the audience to think and ponder the issues of World War II in the shadow of the man who started it. ***

Wayne---A harrowing glimpse into the humanity of evil, “Downfall” ranks as one of the best films made about World War II in Germany. Ganz and Lara both giving stunning performances but, really, highlighting them does a disservice to a cast that perfectly captures the banality of evil. “Downfall” isn’t for the fainthearted and can be difficult to watch at times due to the graphic violence and some horrifying sequences but, on the whole, it’s a worthwhile journey and provides a better understanding of Hitler along with the rise and fall of his Third Reich.

 

 
 
 
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