Tuesday 16 May 2017

Downfall (2004) - Movie Review (Reader Request)

Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting this. Apparently, one of my followers on Facebook cared enough about my uneducated opinion on films that he asked me to review today’s subject. Now, being outside of my usual purview (films made in 2012 or earlier), I was a bit sceptical about this. But, considering the still-prevalent Hitler meme that this film spawned and how comparisons to Hitler are still coming thick and fast from all sectors of the political spectrum, I figure this would at least be interesting enough to warrant my own brand of analysis. Strap yourselves in for some good old-fashioned depression fuel.

The plot: On April 20th, 1945, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) is surrounded on all sides in Berlin by the incoming Russian forces. Secluded in a bunker with his inner circle, his wife Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) and his secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler desperately tries to turn the tide back in his favour, but it seems that his days are numbered.

The cast here is really damn good. Ganz gives an absolutely incredible performance, channelling resolute anger and lingering defeat in a way that definitely rings true of the man’s legacy. Köhler gives the character of Eva a certain fascinating quality, portraying her as doing next to anything to block out the terrors going on beyond the bunker. Alexandra Maria Lara is very effective as the audience avatar/voice of innocence, providing a focal point performance that hammers home how tragic the events around her are.
Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels, aside from outright looking like a monster in human form, oddly enough comes across far more human than that; he gives more an air of an impossibly loyal soldier than an inhuman creature. Same goes for Corinna Harfouch as his wife, who probably commits some of the worser atrocities on-screen (and for a film like this, that’s quite an accomplishment), but also stays resolutely human during her actions. Even the most battle-hardened actors struggle with this.

Something that immediately sticks out about this film from the offset, aside from the documentary footage of the real life Traudl Junge which bookends the story, is how jarringly normal it is. Opening on a scene where Junge goes to a job interview to be Hitler’s secretary, the whole affair plays out like the most mundane thing on Earth. Of course, before too long, we cut to Hitler’s birthday and the proceeding ten days in isolation where, as the war wages on outside and the Russians close in, the atmosphere takes a significant nose dive in mood and continues to burrow down for the rest of the feature.
In fact, far more than a war film, I’d almost call this an apocalypse story with how it’s framed and how the characters react to it. You have the soldiers who are too busy boozing and partying to really understand what is going on up the food chain, you have the civilians worried that they won’t make it out of the bunker alive and then you have the higher-ups who are out-and-out ensuring that they won’t make it out alive. Honestly, with the amount of murder and suicide that occurs here, especially during the final reel, I can’t help but think I have been somewhat traumatized by what I just watched. Regardless of their other actions and who they truly are, seeing this many people take their own lives in such a short amount of time definitely seems to have triggered me in some way. Have to admit, that’s a new one.

What’s more disturbing than all of that, though, is how Hitler himself is characterised. I will refrain from saying that he is shown sympathetically, because there is no fucking way that that will ever happen (nor should it), but it definitely humanises him in a way that I don’t think any other media involving him before or since has managed. From the opening scene, we see him going about his business as if he were any other leader of government, and as the exile carries on in the bunker, we see him grow more and more erratic in his want to see the Reich prosper in spite of the odds.
You know that scene that was used in all of the memes of Hitler just roaring his lungs out? Yeah, in context, it isn’t anywhere near that funny. Instead, that scene essentially serves as his last straw: His last hopes for victory have been snatched from him and, from that point on, the sense of defeat permeates pretty much every other character. And in all that, Hitler is depicted not so much as an inhuman monster but as someone who is very much human, with his own allegiances and affinities and even an ego to bruise. Again, his actions are still heinous and his worldview is still broken, but here, they’re attached to a flesh-and-blood mortal that goes some way to lessen the myth that has surrounded him since his death. Although, by contrast, his attitude towards his own cause, coupled with the even stronger conviction of his followers and the prevalence of suicide, makes this feel like the workings of a cult. Not strictly a cult of personality, as is the case with most dictators, but more a popular conception ‘Jim Jones and Kool-Aid’ kind of cult.

And honestly, that just makes his actions even more frightening. Hell, it makes all the gory and extremely harrowing imagery of the film more frightening. Upon release, some critics thought that because Hitler was portrayed in such a way that the film took his side, or at the very least try to soften the impact of one of history’s cruellest dictators. I couldn’t disagree more, frankly. One of the most prevalent tropes in media is the idea of the all-powerful villain; a being of such immense strength and cunning that not only can they crush the world in the palm of their hand but, because of their uniqueness, no-one stands a chance against them. Usually, this is offset by the existence of a hero on a similar wavelength to the villain who is able to topple them, but let’s focus on that idea of unreachable power. Something that often gets lost in the passing down of history is the idea that history’s greatest monsters aren’t actually monsters: They’re just humans who had the means to carry out their will, to the detriment of countless innocents.
Godwin’s Law, one of the oldest rules of the Internet, is built around the idea that if a person has to go so far as to compare a person to Hitler, they have automatically lost whatever argument they were trying to make. In most cases, that’s a fair cop, but what it also indicates is that no other person can be compared to Hitler. That’s far from the case. Hitler wasn’t the first dictator, nor was he the first person history remembers as being evil incarnate. Hell, in the film itself, Hitler mentions one of Stalin’s ideas as something he should emulate. Or, in case that wasn’t enough, there’s a scene where Hitler talks about the idea of compassion… and how, with his worldview and goal in life, he has no use for it. This idea of compassion being a sign of weakness, or otherwise something to be jettisoned, hasn’t gone away and is still being used in political discussions. That’s what makes this terrifying: The fact that not only did human hands cause this tragedy, but that human hands are still capable of it. We’re all capable of inhumanities; we just need to be aware of it.

All in all… yikes. This might be the single most harrowing film I’ve sat through, and not just because of the frequent depictions of suicide. Instead, it’s because everything and everyone on screen is shown through an unshakably human lens, not to mention given a certain amount of complexity to boot, which only makes the actions that we see even more hard-hitting. It’s one thing to see a giant squash the human race under its foot; it’s quite another to see a fellow human do the same. Also, the fact that this film is able to humanise Hitler and his inner circle, while not even attempting to excuse their actions in the process, is the kind of tightrope walk that genuinely makes me surprised that this was directed by the same guy who gave us the treacly slop that was Diana. You’d think, given how well this turned out, he’d do better at portraying Nazi sympathisers. If you thought that joke was too harsh, then you clearly don’t realise how badly I need any form of mirth after sitting through this thing.
So, yeah, that was my first Reader Request review. Have to admit, putting aside the emotional impact of the work, I honestly wouldn’t mind doing this again. If you have any films you’d like me to cover on here (provided that it fits into my purview; I made an exception here and I’m not likely to make it again), feel free to send them my way.

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