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Der Untergang (The Downfall)

Loammi Wolf

Made in Germany
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Produced by Bernd Eichinger
With Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara and Corinna Harfouch
Official site:

Der Untergang of Bernd Eichinger is competing with Darrell Roodt's Yesterday, together with a number of other films, for this year's Oscar award in the category best foreign language film.

Unlike Yesterday, this is not a film you would go to see for you pleasure, even though it is a brilliant movie in many respects. The film has received quite some attention, in part because this is another Bernd Eichinger production, in part because it's directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, but mostly, of course, because the centre of gravity in this story of the final days of the Third Reich is Hitler himself, portrayed by no less than the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who rarely fails to drag a ton of pathos with him to whatever role he takes on.

Hardly any other German film premičre in the last few decades has had such a big response. In Germany alone 4,6 million people saw the movie within the first few weeks after its release. American critics have voiced the opinion that this could well turn out to be simply the most important film ever made about the Second World War. After the international premičre of the film at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14 2004, the New York Times held that at last, for once, the German dictator is shown not in a "sober documentary or a biting satire", but in a "straightforward, rather conventional drama". The well-known British historian and Hitler specialist, Ian Kershaw, who saw the movie in a private preview before its official release in Germany, commented in a full-page article in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine that even though the film is, strictly speaking, not a documentary, it is much better than most documentaries on the subject.

Bernd Eichinger obtained the film rights for Joachim Fest's bestseller (Inside Hitler's Bunker) and is both the producer and screenwriter of the film. The script relies heavily on authentic data and has tried to give the film, which deals with the last 12 days in the bunker before Hitler committed suicide, as much historical accuracy as possible. The story itself is told from the perspective of a contemporary witness, for the film is also based on the memoirs of Hitler's young private secretary, Traudl Junge, who served him for two and a half years. The story of the "downfall" is told through her eyes, through the eyes of the actress Alexandra Maria Lara. And it is told in such a concentrated manner that "every single millimetre-long sequence of this film you might keep to study in more detail seems to weigh a ton," as publisher Frank Schirrmacher writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine. His assessment of Eichinger's production is simple: for him it is "a masterpiece".

Yet the reaction to Eichinger's film has been ambivalent at home, despite international acclaim. This movie broke a taboo in Germany by making a film about Hitler that shows him the way he really was - "demythologising" him. Even if you don't speak German, the trailer alone ought to alert you that this is something entirely different - and far more frightening: a reminder that Adolf Hitler was actually a human being. Since 1956, when Pabst filmed The Last Act, no German has dared to make a film with Hitler in a central role. It is understandable in the years, even the decades, after WW II and the end of one of the most horrendous chapters in human history, that most film-makers, especially German ones, did not want to look Hitler in the face. The few of those who did, knew their audiences wouldn't want to.

The taboo the film has broken by not showing Hitler only as a shouting demagogue but showing him as a soft-spoken considerate person at times, produced much concern from German film critics in general. Many feel that the break with Hitler should be final in all respects - forever.

It is understandable that many of them cannot relate to him, but a refusal to recognise the humanity in anyone could be both wrong and dangerous.

Many also feared that the film might become a cult object for neo-Nazis. The producers were obviously apprehensive that some of them might try to get small roles in the film "to be immortalised with their idol", and despite extensive precautions a number of skins did, in fact, succeed. Yet it was interesting to hear their side afterwards and to see how mature most Germans handled this, indicating that Germans might finally gain some distance from this dark part of their history.

Despite criticism that the film remained too much within the parameters of authentic history and thereby lost some opportunities to create more suspense focused on scenes and characters, the mere act of making this film is so brave that one ought to set up flexible rules to treat it just for what it tried to achieve. If it had dared to move one inch beyond the remnants of history that have at least been secured, Eichinger would have been subject to even harsher criticism, not least from a whole guild of notorious historians, who have been facing the past to the point of exasperation for 60 years.

This is certainly no attempt to understand Hitler or National Socialism, but a few scenes attempt to lift the veil.

Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is exceptional, not only in the perfect mimicry of the voice of Hitler, his accent and appearance, but also in the sudden outbreaks of fury, one hand behind his back to conceal its trembling - alluding to Parkinson's disease. One single voice piece of Hitler talking "normally" and not in a frenzy during mass rallies was the point of departure for Ganz for his portrayal of this difficult role. Ganz is certainly a master of characters: he brilliantly interprets the role of a demagogue oscillating between cold-blooded disregard for human beings, political brutality, an irrational hatred of Jews, and "normality". He also portrays an old man, fluctuating between depression and optimism, and who was more interested in his dog and vegetarian food than in Eva Braun, despite the fact that he still married her in those last bunker days.

Yet there are numerous other scenes that cannot leave one cold, especially the one where Magda Goebels (Corinna Harfouch) sets out to poison her six children. Or the scene where Goebels snottily retorts that the Germans got what they wanted and "now the moment has come where their throats are cut …" More subtle is the scene where Hitler gets married to Eva Braun and the magistrate asks him, by force of the Nuremberg laws, whether he is of Jewish descent - an allusion to a forbidden "open secret".

What moves one most of all in this bizarre portrayal of the last days in the bunker are not the excessive abuse of alcohol and discussions of the best method to commit suicide, but the destruction and dehumanisation by a total war and the fate of ordinary people like that of the young girl selected to be Hitler's secretary.

The apocalyptic nature of the film is enhanced by the fact that the reality outside the bunker is blended in, increasing the stark discrepancy between the make-believe world of Hitler and the reality of Russian artillery encircling Berlin. It also shows how ordinary people reacted to this madness, drinking champagne and eating chocolates in the face of the final destruction - out of pure nihilistic desperation.

The film is star-studded with superb actors in the leading roles. Apart from Bruno Ganz as Hitler, Alexandra Maria Lara excels as the young and naďve secretary of Hitler. Julianne Köhler as Eva Braun is perhaps a little too lively. Yet this film is unusual insofar as not a single actor could have been left cold by the role he or she played. They were all very brave and it is not something anybody should take for granted.

At the premičre in Toronto the actors went on to the stage afterwards. Applause in honour of the film. The crescendo of the ovation ebbed off into silence. There could have been no more appropriate ovation.

Afterwards Adam Fuerstenberg, a survivor of the holocaust and the director of the Holocaust Centre of Toronto said: "This is how it must have been …"

Loammi Wolf Na 'n draai in die VSA het ek in Duitsland studeer, amper 20 jaar terug, en het gebly weens 'n groot trekpleister. Tans werk ek aan 'n boek waar ek kyk na die fenomeen van kollektiewe skuld en die uitwerking daarvan op 'n demokrasie na groot trauma in 'n samelewing, hoe dit ook nog generasies daarna beďnvloed - en wie kan ek beter vergelyk as die Duitsers en die Afrikaners?

LitNet: 23 February 2005

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