Sunday, January 18, 2009

Movie Review - Downfall (2004)

It's easy for us now to look back at the Second World War and point out how much of an evil, despicable person Adolf Hitler was. So obvious, in fact, that you might find yourself wondering how a man like that could even come into power. If you haven't read a lot of WWII history, it's a hard thing to understand. You look at the state of the world now, with its Kim Jong-Ills and Osama Bin-Ladens, and it seems, for the most part, that there are clearly defined "bad guys." But you should realize that back when Hitler forced his way into power, Germany was in a state of shock. No one knew what the future held, and fear of a continued landslide after WWI was foremost on the minds of its citizens. That's how Hitler was able to get his foot in the door -- by promising to rebuild Germany to its former glory. He was a powerful orator, and his speeches resonated with many, many people who just wanted something to believe in. A lot of these people weren't evil; they were simply mislead by a figure who took his opportunity to mold a frightened country into what he saw fit.

Traudl Junge(Alexandra Maria Lara) was one of those people. She was a secretary of Hitler's, and she accompanied him in the bunker that served as the last holdout of the Nazi party. The film opens with an interview with the real-life Traudl, and in it she expresses her regret for not figuring out Hitler's true motivations and plans. She applied for her secretarial job along with a bunch of other girls who all acted like they were auditioning for a movie role. Their excitement was genuine, but I really don't think these girls knew what the hell was going on. It illustrates the power someone could hold over impressionable youths, cause be damned. All they knew was that Adolf Hitler was an important man -- a man who was going to change the face of Germany forever.

The beginning of the actual film sees Russian troops rapidly closing in on a war-torn Berlin. The Nazis are scrambling, desperately trying to find something they can salvage from their failed attempt at world domination. Some want to negotiate a treaty with the Allied Forces, while others view that as defeat -- something their proud egos would not allow. Hitler was one of those men. While he demanded his armies continue fighting, he nevertheless ordered the evacuation and transfer of their headquarters into his bunker, where he would hold out as long as long as he could. This is where most of the movie takes place; as the war rages outside its walls, Hitler commands what little he has left at his disposal, seemingly unable to see the obvious defeat looming at his doorstep. He barks orders, rages at the incompetence of his commanding officers, and even has a party -- if more than a little subdued -- for his 56th birthday.

And it's in this context you see his madness consuming him. His anger and frustration boil over into uncontrollable rage at times, but he won't allow for any sort of compromise. He bases his command decisions on non-existent troops, and generally acts like the war is still theirs to lose. These are all examples of how this film shows Hitler to be a human being, not the larger than life monster he will forever be known as. He also shows warmth and affection towards others, and you get just a glimpse of why those surrounding him would choose to follow him so blindly.

Among those people was Magda Goebbels, wife to Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitlers closest friends and Reich Minister. After ( spoiler!! ) Hitler's suicide, there's an extremely powerful scene in which she decides the fate of her six children, and the depth of her convictions are made despairingly apparent. Downfall is full of like moments, and I can't help but feel what it was like to be part of their hopelessly lost cause. It's a strange thing to relate to people who committed blatent attrocities, but such is the power of film. I would obviously not consider myself an admirer, but thanks to Oliver Hirschbiegel, I at least have another perspective as to how Hitler wrestled his way into the hearts and minds of so many.

What's that, you ask? Yes, Hirschbiegel did direct the god-awful The Invasion, the latest reincarnation of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I think it's safe to say most foreign directors make the most out of their talents when making movies in their native countries. Because, wow, The Invasion was a filmic abortion if I ever saw one. Downfall, on the other hand, is worthwhile for anyone who has a remote interest in WWII history, Hitler, or great dramas in general.

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