May 18, 2010

24 FPS Top 100 Films

Click the title below for a trailer

95: DER UNTERGANG (a.k.a. Downfall) [2004]
DIR: Oliver Hirschbiegel

In the past decade, with the generation that fought the war entering their 80’s, and their grandchildren behind the cameras, the German film industry has finally begun to tackle World War II head on. Downfall has perhaps the smallest scope of these films; it is confined almost entirely to Hitler’s Berlin bunker, in the last ten days before his suicide, as Berlin falls to the Russians above the fuehrer and his inner circle. It is also the best of this impressive cycle of films.

Much of the reason for that is the exceptional performance of Bruno Ganz as Hitler. In many ways Hitler is easy to play; after all he’s seen (rightly, given his beliefs and actions) as a monster, and a monster is easy to play, because a monster is simple. Ganz and director Hirschbiegel refuse to play Hitler that way, because the reality is that he wasn’t a monster, he was a man, and Ganz plays him as one. He’s a man whose capacity for evil is seldom in doubt, but at times Ganz also gives him an almost unsettling warmth. The scenes where he’s almost fatherly as he gives Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara in her breakout role) a trial run at taking dictation is among the film’s more haunting moments, not because of how Ganz and Lara play it, but because of what lies behind that fa├žade.

Ganz does dominate the film, appearing, until the last twenty minutes or so, in practically every scene, and demonstrating such imposing presence (despite the physical frailty, including hints of Parkinsons, with which he plays Hitler) that even when he’s offscreen the character hangs over the film. However, it isn’t just the Bruno Ganz show, the rest of the cast are excellent, especially Lara, as the conflicted Junge, who is the closest thing to a character we can identify with and Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch as Joseph and Magda Goebbels. Indeed, perhaps even more than Ganz’ Hitler it is Harfouch’s Magda Goebbels who is the most terrifying, most evil, character in this film, and the mix of steel and casualness with which Harfouch plays her chills me to the bone every time.

Though the war is largely an outside presence, Oliver Hirschbiegel really captures an ever increasing feeling of impending doom, this, mixed with the claustrophobia of the bunker in which most of the film takes places makes for a tight, tense and challenging viewing experience, but Hirschbiegel maintains a firm grip on the tale, telling it not dispassionately, but thankfully without editorialising. In the end he’s made a film which manages to both an exceptional war movie and a genuinely fascinating study of collective evil.

Medal ceremony
Hitler pins medals on the (very) young fighters in the battle of Berlin, in a scene that really begins to show just HOW wrong the war is going.

A drink before bedtime
Magda Goebbels poisons her young children, in one of the most chilling scenes in cinema.

Joseph Goebbels: I feel no sympathy. I repeat, I feel no sympathy! The German people chose their fate. That may surprise some people. Don't fool yourself. We didn't force the German people. They gave us a mandate, and now their little throats are being cut!

Adolf Hitler: That was an order! Steiner's assault was an order! Who do you think you are to dare disobey an order I give? So this is what it has come to! The military has been lying to me. Everybody has been lying to me, even the SS! Our generals are just a bunch of contemptible, disloyal cowards... Our generals are the scum of the German people! Not a shred of honour! They call themselves generals. Years at military academy just to learn how to hold a knife and fork! For years, the military has hindered my plans! They've put every kind of obstacle in my way! What I should have done... was liquidate all the high-ranking officers, as Stalin did!

Magda Goebbels: Sleep tight, children.

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