Monday, 22 March 2010

The war is lost... But if you think that I'll leave Berlin for that, you are sadly mistaken. I'd prefer to put a bullet in my head

No 245 - Der Untergang (Downfall)
Director - Oliver Hirschbiegel

Well, I never went into this film thinking it would be 'light' or 'fun'. I always knew it was going to be heavy hitting. But it was still a hell of a film to sit through. For most of the time it was miserable and bleak and cruel, framed in greys and browns and distressingly true.

The film follows the final few days of the German Reich, and the attack on Berlin which led to the Nazi surrender and the end of the Second World War. Whilst we do follow Hitler and his aides, our anchor point is the civilian brought into Hitler's service - Traudl Junge. Junge was a young woman who was hired to become Hitler's secretary and who stayed in the bunker till the last possible moment, witnessing it all.
She is important as the film's anchor because of a number of reasons.
She is a civilian, she isn't battle hardened and therefore shares our shock at the horrors of war. She is also constantly around. She witnesses the full story of Hitler's end.
She was real.... The film bookends with archive footage of Junge speaking retrospectively. About her shame of really liking one of the most evil men who ever lived and how she couldn't use childish naivety as an excuse.

Junge is presented as quite a young naive and wide eyed woman. She is frequently shocked and she is often clearly out of her depth. But her representation is fair. In fact, everyone in this is painted fairly and as people. Which is important, and I think rare... because a lot of films just show Nazis as cold blooded killers or as cackling bastards.
In fact most of Hitler's aides are shown as just very loyal and obedient soldiers. They have pride and arrogance and an utter belief in what they are doing. They are also in love with their Fuhrer. After all, whilst he was mad and a horrible human being, it is on record that Hitler was very charismatic. That he was kind and caring to the people he was close to. Certainly, Bruno Ganz's remarkable performance shows that. Certainly at the beginning of the film, before the invasion of Berlin begins he is calm and polite, witty and charming. The scene in which he auditions his secretaries is a scene in which you see the side to Hitler which Germany would have seen when they elected him. He is a leader, kind and compassionate and firmly in control.

However, all of that is soon lost. As it becomes clearer that he has lost the war he becomes obsessed with not looking weak. He lies constantly and sends demands to his troops that will not only kill them but will kill thousands of civilians. He decides that the fact he lost the war is the fault of the German people and that now they deserve to be punished. He becomes obsessed with death. Not only does he hang or shoot almost everybody he views as a 'traitor' (and it didn't take much to be branded a traitor) but he then talks his loyal generals into killing themselves. He sees being caught (dead or alive) as worse than actually losing the war.
During his madness he seems to physically shrink. Becoming more and more curled up and balled up and sunken into himself. Near the end as he walks around, slow and shaking like a doddery old man, he seems almost a caricature of Hitler, a giant coat with the collar turned up, and a giant hat pulled down so that almost only the iconic moustache can be seen.

Ganz's performance is amazing, watching Hitler flit from being optimistic and impassioned to low and despondent and to massive fits of rage. It is not difficult to wonder if by this point, Hitler had actually gone fully insane, no longer able to lead an army or to fulfill his horrible hate-filled
However, Hitler's key move in this film, is his suicide. As it at this point that we see the true colours of the rest of the Nazi party and the arguments between those still loyal to Hitler and those who just want to get out as soon as possible. We also see the full insanity of Herr and Frau Goebbells. Joseph Goebbells (Ulrich Matthes) has been an intimidating throughout... his gaunt face and near psychotic stare beaming through any military crowd scene. It is only after Hitler's death (and the one scene in which he shows any real emotion besides anger) that you see how insane he is... and his wife. Their desperate clinging passion in the third Reich results in completely psychotic and horrific behaviour. The Goebbellses are difficult to watch and their scenes are bravely portrayed.

And, I suppose, that is the key thing. To the best of my knowledge this is the first German film to really tackle this subject matter and it does so intelligently and bravely. It paints the characters as people. Flawed people who you, the viewer, hopefully don't agree with... but people none the less.
We're coming to a generation where we're becoming more detached from WWII. When I have children they will be as far away from the Blitz as I am to the Boer war. I have a Romany great grandfather who left his family to fight in the war (allegedly) I am as little affected by these events as I am by my (alleged) gypsy heritage. Neither of them have had any influence in my upbringing.

This film seems to be Germany examining its past. In the hope that it can move on. In the hope that we can all move on.

It is a beautiful and poignant move to display such horrible events and such cruelty with a neutral unbiased eye.

It is just a shame that it was also at the heart of such a shitty viral meme.

(actually.... in all fairness I saw an amazing one of these in which Bruno Ganz was angered by having his best acting scene ruined by these viral memes. I can't remember who made it but I saw it at a popcorn comedy gig and have not been able to find it online ever)
EDIT - VOILA FOUND IT.... thank you twitter

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