By Mike Derderian
Funny how the title of a movie can take a person 10 years back in time. I was young and many of my ideologies were similar to what I am stuck with at the moment. I have to admit though that I erased the turn-the-other-cheek rule out of my book. It was simply impractical.
I found myself standing in the middle of my school hall that was packed with parents and children; they were all cheering. A girl called Najwan had just finished reading a paper about Adolf Hitler. “I am proud to say that Hitler is my idol,” she said as she finished reading.
A hero! Hitler is no hero! Her agony at seiing Arabs suffering at the hands of Israelis made her mindset: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
Why the sudden surge of memories? Well, I watched Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 masterpiece Der Untergang at a friend’s house and that’s when it all came back to me. The title of this 156-minute war drama that translates to Downfall chronicles the remaining days of Hitler and that of his loyal entourage at the infamous Berlin underground bunker.
It stars Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Christian Berkel, Juliane Köhler, Matthias Habich, André Hennicke, Thomas Kretschmann and Alexandra Maria Lara, who played the role of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s private secretary between the years 1942-1945 and around whom the movie marginally revolved.
Bruno Ganz’ portrayal of the aging Fuehrer was stellar and helped shed light on a side that was never portrayed. It was not exactly psychoanalysis or an in depth research into Hitler’s inner self, as much as it was a testimony on how he was perceived by his staff of generals, officers, soldiers, secretaries and friends.
The G in Ganz must stand for great for the man was brilliant and for a moment or two you actually feel sorry for Hitler. Now, you won’t be seeing Hitler standing in a corner soliloquizing but you will find out that he has a soft spot for children, dogs and vegetarian meals.
We see a man best remembered for his monstrosity sitting on a table with his staff, enjoying a vegetarian meal, holding a child in his arms as he listens to other children sing German folkloric songs; a man who is in love and cares for the safety of his personal staff.
Ganz’ physical transformation, which was enhanced by his skill as an actor, helped in bringing Hitler back to life. With a bent back he strides the halls of his bunker clutching his nervously twitching left arm—he has been struck with Parkinson’s disease. His black hair covers one side of his forehead, with few locks of gray here and there; however, near the end, most of it turns into a mesh of white and grey.
The stillness in Der Untergang’s is what makes it a really disturbing movie yet highly enjoyable. Violence proves more distressing when it is not incorporated directly on screen but hinted at—this is where Hirschbiegel directorial brilliance lies.
You don’t see someone’s brain coming out of his skull—save for one scene. Even Hitler and Eva’s suicide scene was shoot—no pun intended—behind closed doors. Hirschbiegel took the outlines of one of the most violent days in German history that oozed of death and bloodshed and turned it into an emotional trek.
The material of the plot was derived from two books, Der Untergang by Joachim Fest and Bis Zur Letzten Stunde (Up to the Last Hour) by Traudl Junge.
A segment taken from a documentary entitled Blind Spot with real life Traudl—died at 82—talking about her experience and how she never knew the monster Hitler was, appeared at the beginning of the film and at the end.
“I wasn’t a fanatic Nazi. I could have said in Berlin, ‘no, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to go to the Fuhrer’s headquarters.’ But I didn’t do that. I was too curious. I didn’t realize that fate would lead me somewhere I didn’t want to be. But still, I find it hard to forgive myself,” Traudl says.
Watching Der Untergang will take you there. It was like watching a roller coaster that we know is about to be derailed. Everyone knows that Hitler and Eva Brown, the woman he loved and wedded in his final hours, decided to commit suicide. The roller coaster was derailed and to our shock the awe was unbearable even though we were being emotionally prepped up throughout the film.
Reaching that conclusion—the demise of Hitler and the Third Reich—in Hirschbiegel’s masterpiece proves a painful and exhausting experience, similar to what Steven Speilberg did in his 1998 graphic war movie Saving Private Ryan.
The claustrophobic atmosphere of the bunker, accompanied with a non-stop tempo of siren alarms, air raids and loud shrieks of falling bombs and men in pain, helped heighten the film’s intensity. People with high blood pressure are hereby warned.
Hirschbiegel not only played with our emotions but with our vision too. When Traudl walks out of a Russian packed Berlin, the camera for a few seconds starts to shake. Nothing is more annoying than a shaky camera and this is intentional on part of the director, who wanted to convey Truadl’s nausea and pathos.
All actors especially Corinna Harfouch, who played the role of ice queen Magda Goebbels the wife of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, were on par with Ganz’s performance and managed to invoke one’s emotions.
Must-see-scenes: Truadl’s daring escape near the end, the scene where Magda cold bloodedly kills her children because she believes that a Germany without Hitler is not worth living, Goeblels’ (Matthes) scene where he asks Traudl to write his testament and any scene involving Bruno Ganz’s Hitler.