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March 22, 2005

On Original Nazis

Thereís an interesting and well-made movie out in limited release named Downfall. Itís about the final days in the Fuehrerbunker, and if youíre passing on it because you think youíve already seen it before, well, youíre probably right. And very wrong.

For the record, in 1973 Alec Guinness played everybodyís favorite monster of war in Hitler: The Last Ten Days. Guinness turned in a bravura performance in a movie that was adequate at best. Without taking away anything from the late actor, it isnít all that hard for a talented performer to go way over the top to portray Adolf in his last days. Itís like throwing red meat to a hungry wolf: the more foam you see, the better you see the soul.

Downfall is unique because it is a German movie. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who was born a dozen years after the end of World War II and, thus, was able to approach his subject matter with neither guilt nor defensiveness. Bruno Ganz plays Der Fuehrer, giving us a performance that clearly shows Hitlerís fleeting moments of sanity and concern while his is drowning in his self-made sea of madness.

The real stars of this movie are Juliane KŲhler as Eva Braun, Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, and Alexandra Maria Lara as Hitlerís secretary Traudl Junge. Ms. Braun is a fangirl, totally enthralled with her husband and therefore all that he stands for. However, she falls short of being a complete fanatic as she shows a complete understanding of her actions and maintains human relations with her contemporaries. On the other hand, Ms. Goebbels is a complete fanatic who is even scarier in her fervor than her husband Joseph, and heís not exactly a walk through the park on a warm summer day (Ulrich Matthes turns in a fantastic performance in the role; he plays Dr. Goebbels as 80% brilliant fanatic and 20% coward). I would be betraying my innermost nature if I didnít point out that Ms. Harfouch would be a suitable and convincing candidate to portray Ann Coulter when her biopic is produced.

Traudl Junge becomes Hitlerís secretary by interviewing for the job. Whereas she is loyal to her employer and uninformed about the war Ė obviously, she chose to be that way Ė she was not a Nazi and didnít particularly believe in the goals of the party. She got the gig while in her early 20s and was clearly caught up in the events swirling around her. I should mention thereís a brief interview segment with the real Junge appended to the movie filmed shortly before she died a couple years ago. It is very much a part of the movie.

Other characters come off as real people, with their doubts and regrets and failed dreams. I found Albert Speerís portrayal (by Heino Ferch) to be particularly fascinating: he wasnít evil, he wasnít good. He was a dispassionate businessman who knew where to put his morals when they interfered with his work. When the cause is lost, all he is left with are those morals Ė and he knows it.

Nobody does any breast-beating in this movie, and that will disappoint and even anger some. Tough cookies; the story of how so many human beings could get caught up in such a horror is one of the most important of the past century, and Deadfall pulls it off well. This is a movie that deserves to be seen.

Oh, and it turns out Hitler didnít like dogs all that much after all.

Posted by Mike Gold at March 22, 2005 11:08 AM

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FWIW: Both of Speer's books -- Inside the Third Reich and Spandau -- are highly readable. And John Toland's "The Last Hundred Days" is a classic.

Posted by: Rick Oliver at March 22, 2005 05:55 PM

Glad to see you comment on this. We went to see it a couple of weeks ago and I never got around to finishing and posting my own review. I totally agree with you on pretty much everything you say here, particularly the performances by the women in this film. For the record, the contemporary footage of the real Traudl Junge shown at the end is excerpted from a longer documentary about her called "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary." (Available from Amazon, Netflix and I am sure other fine places.) I say documentary, but it is actually just a long, taped interview with minimal editing, but still quite powerful. I think, unfortunately, she had a little bit of that Leni Reifenstahl denial going on about not knowing just exactly what Hitler was doing regarding the "Jewish Problem." Unlike Reifenstahl, however, she at least seems to admit that there was some conscious denial going on and that she should have made more of an effort to open her eyes.

Posted by: Jim Chadwick at March 23, 2005 07:34 PM

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