Tuesday, April 12, 2005


There's something chillingly "Based on a true story..." in the make-up of Downfall. (Der Untergang) The historical distancing of WWII is one reason this film was made, and it is a phenomenon I know I will continue to be a little disturbed by as the years march on.

Amidst all these wan, grey, barking men in uniforms the scariest Germans on show here are the women! Nazi men were human grotesques, but the women were all straight out of a fascist wet nightmare. (However, I can't imagine what Anne Widecombe would have said about Ulrich Mathes who plays Joseph Goebbels!)

Antony Beevor has written a pair of bestselling history books about the two most significant downturns for the Nazis, Stalingrad and Berlin the Downfall 1945, and German film-makers have now made two powerful films that cover events from the German perspective - one which might be characterised as bewildered in both.

Beevor's brand of historical storytelling, an oddly balanced mix of excessive military detail and individual eye-witness accounts wouldn't translate well to the screen, but I was surprised that some of his more striking anecdotes have been passed over by the writers of Downfall. For instance, whilst the corpses of Adolf and Eva Hitler burned and Goebbels, Bormann, Krebs and Burgdorf saluted, Beevor reports that one of the drunken SS guards from the party in the Reich Chancellery canteen was watching from the bunker entrance. He turned and hurried back to his mates shouting "The Chief's on fire!" to Rochus Misch, the SS telephonist who had earlier called up to the revelling Nazis to keep the noise down while Hitler took his own life. The racket generated by these apocalyptic festivities prevented anyone from hearing the shot that the cornered Führer fired into his own head.

Downfall often has you on the edge of your seat, such that as the camera follows a figure leaving the bunker a salute by a Nazi hidden just across the threshold of an iron door delivers a sudden jolt. The effects are impressive and the battle scenes are pretty terrifying because you feel like you have been teleported into the middle of them without a weapon far from cover.

As Adolf, Bruno Ganz is charismatic and demented, possibly an accurate portrayal, though at times I couldn't help but think...Basil Fawlty. You will find yourself pitying this demented man and for many I suppose, that's just not on at all. Ganz's Adolf is complex and charismatic precisely because all the other men around him, with the possible exception of Albert Speer, amply demonstrate that Germans can do cardboard Nazi stereotypes too.

Much has been made of the fact that this film emphasises how the agonising Nazi regime betrayed der folk at this critical time. Yet perhaps for budgetary reasons the depiction of the suffering of the city is less convincing than the re-creation of the claustrophobia of the drab underground inner sanctum, with its emblematic waiting room. Downfall is about the stress of waiting for the inevitable end. If Beevor's vision is epic and apocalyptic, director Otto Hirschbiegel's is comparatively domestic. The systematic slaughter of the Goebbels children by their mother Magda is the immoral centre of a movie which is otherwise an unsual mix of cinematic and televisual dramatic styles.

Another reason the film is a disconcerting experience is because although some effort has been made to create characters we can have a degree of sympathy with (as in Stalingrad there is the good German, bad German confrontation) even the principal witness to events, Traudl Junge, is a figure of ambiguity and the interview recorded shortly before her death in 2002 confirms this. I could have known about what was really going on around me, but somehow I didn't, she said. Both Traudl and Albert Speer are made to give a quizzical expression when Hitler says he's pleased that at least he managed to deal with the Jews. Speer went on to become the most canny of the defendants at Nuremberg.

At the end I was surprised by how many of the characters had died quite recently in old age, including Hitler's personal adjutant Otto Günsche. The made-for-tv style "what happened to..." slides that run before the credits suggest that Martin Bormann also took his own life. Beevor however insists that "Martin Bormann, although not of his own volition, was the only major Nazi party leader to have faced the bullets of the Bolshevik enemy." Many people still believe he made it to Buenos Aires.

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