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Der Untergang (Downfall)

(2005) *** 1/2 R
155 min. Constantin Film. Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel. Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Kohler.

Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall—based on the books Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour by Traudl Junge—excruciatingly details the last days of Hitler's Nazi regime. It's undeniably potent stuff and, without a doubt, one of the most depressing movies you'll ever (or never) see. A somber accounting crafted with impressive verisimilitude and anchored by Bruno Ganz's rock-solid performance as the Führer, Downfall is perhaps the definitive film on its subject.

Those who saw the 2003 documentary Blind Spot—Hitler's Secretary will immediately recognize the words that open the film, spoken by an 80-year-old Traudl Junge. The first scene in the film, set in November of 1942, depicts her hiring, as a young woman, to be Hitler's secretary. As played by Alexandra Maria Lara, Junge provides a relatively innocent point-of-view from which to observe the machinations of the Führer and Berlin's 1945 descent into political chaos and madness. Hirschbiegel also provocatively stokes the subtext of Junge's barely suppressed love for Hitler.

Bernd Eichinger's screenplay follows a number of supporting characters, some familiar to history, like Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen), and Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), others less so, like heroically stubborn Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel) and boy Nazi Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia). Even with an overload of material, Downfall is never less than crisply made. A war-room map adds clarity to the strategic hopelessness of the situation, and though the buzzing narrative lands on its subjects somewhat haphazardly, each character pretty much gets his or her due. For the most part unsettlingly matter-of-fact, Eichinger's script is also a considered response to history, particularly in exploring the mysterious appeal of Hitler and the determined martyrdom of his loyal followers.

Ganz gives a flawless performance. Exploring the explosive, implosive mein of the last days, Ganz first keeps Hitler's palsied hand taut behind his back, though it gradually emerges as the attempt to suppress his world's breakdown (to himself as much as his circle) becomes ever more futile. In the film's memorable opening, we also get to see the charming Hitler described years later by Junge. An aide announces to the secretarial candidates, "The Führer is feeding his dog. He will be with you shortly."A cold wind blows through the bunker, but Hitler proves capable of warmth and magnetism when he's still on top of the world.

As his foothold crumbles, Hitler cuts loose everyone but his dwindling inner circle. To questions about the fate of the people, he replies, "In a war like this, there are no civilians." His people have disappointed him by failing to fully share in his vision, but even as he orders his armies and common Berliners to certain martyrdom by incoming Russian troops, most of his people remain fiercely loyal. From our perspective, shared by Schenck, their loyalty to the last breath is mad, but the point is well taken that people can be all too easily won to an apparently righteous cause. The image of Junge's escape, to one day tell the tale, carries a horrible weight with its tattered hope.

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