Funerals in Berlin
Slow-moving but not boring for its hundred-fifty-five minutes, this macabre stately dance of death compels a species of sympathy in spite of any audience’s pre-conditioned, and deservedly reinforced, repulsion. Its title three-pronged, Downfall depicts the disintegration of a recently invulnerable army built for a thousand years, the fall into misery of an overbearing people once masters of its continent, and the human collapse of monsters into bickering recrimination and insanity.
Third feature from German television’s Vienna-based Oliver Hirshbiegel, and an Oscar entry for foreign film, Downfall is being compared to made-for-TV Das Boot, filmed on the same Munich Bavaria Studios soundstage. Like that submarine movie and Hirshbiegel’s 2001 Das Experiment, the current film achieves a sense of claustrophobia, in besieged Berlin, particularly the Chancellery bunker where the Führer and his staff grasp at straw hopes for a saving miracle during the last twelve days of World War Two.
Relying on natural source light even for exteriors -- St. Petersburg ironically filling in for 1945 Berlin -- and largely handheld cameras that enter the four-walled set in the cluttered underground quarters, Cinematographer Rainer Klausmann and Production Designer Bernd Lepel highlight a concentration on the lives of those confined in the bunker, whose sallies out into the statued gardens are cut by artillery explosions. Despite numerous scenes of street fighting, child soldiers, civilian panic, vigilante SS death squads and surgeons amputating in makeshift hospitals, the focus is squarely on the Führer and those surrounding him in these final hours.
There is thus an emotional depth -- especially praiseworthy given the subject and the country -- lacking in, say, Germany’s earlier Stalingrad or the British TV The Death of Adolf Hitler. Conceptually, much is seen through the eyes of twenty-five-year-old Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), the Leader’s private secretary for whom he has a tender, grandfatherly concern. A few opening minutes show her being personally chosen in 1942 because she is a Münchnerin, and a brief coda interview fifty-seven years later has her reflecting on her and the German people’s guilt in not seeing, or wanting to see, the fate of European Jews.
But although there are scary anti-Semitic rants, and although sweet-faced Traudl often obliquely observes goings-on, the chilling center is, not once again the Holocaust, but, rather, the characters of Hitler and some few of his lieutenants. Basing his script on historian Joachim Fest’s The Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker, writer-producer Bernd Eichinger puts his story together through Junge’s memoirs, Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary, and we are horrified and yet glued to the result.
The fascination comes about through a number of outstanding performances. Not depending on the naturally built-in horror of his character, Swiss Bruno Ganz is courageous in reflecting the deepening dementia and betrayal paranoia of the palsied dictator who physically hunches and shrinks before our eyes, a contrast to Eva Braun’s (Juliane Köhler) hysterical gaiety and humanizing revelation of hatred for the dog Blondi and mixed feelings for her new husband. A strange foil to them are the Goebbels, pathological fanatics who are even more terrifyingly twisted and static: beauty Magda’s (Corinna Harfouch) uncharacteristic emotional plea to Hitler only underscores her unnatural iciness, and cadaverous Propaganda Minister Joseph (Ulrich Matthes), “crippled in body and soul” in the words of Thomas Mann.
Some important figures in the actual historical drama are not emphasized, e.g. Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) and Bormann (Thomas Thieme), while recurring episodes recounting the plights of Hitler Youth Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia) and his doomed father (Karl Kranzkowski), or of Professor Schenck (Christian Berkel), are unnecessary and, though intended to enlarge overall scope, merely detract from the main drama. But, like the deadly serpent’s stare, Downfall hypnotizes, as, almost against our will, we are drawn to a human consideration of the unimaginable un-human.
(Released by Newmarket Films; not rated by MPAA.)