A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

Ulrich Matthes and Bruno Ganz in Downfall
Adolf Hitler: Bruno Ganz
Traudl Junge: Alexandra Maria Laga
Magda Goebbels: Corinna Harfouch
Joseph Goebbels: Ulrich Matthes
Eva Braun: Juliane Köhler
Albert Speer: Heino Ferch
Ernst-Günter Schenk: Christian Berkel
Werner Haase: Matthias Habich
Hermann Fegelein: Thomas Kretschmann
Gen. Weidling: Michael Mendl
Heinrich Himmler: Ulrich Noethen

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger
Based on books by Joachim Fest and Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller
Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann
Production design: Bernd Lepel
Film editing: Hans Funck
Music: Stephan Zacharias

Downfall may be best known today for memes: the video parodies that take parts of the film, particularly the ranting of Bruno Ganz's Hitler, and supply new subtitles that spoof everything from contemporary politics to the efforts of the producers to suppress the parodies on YouTube because of copyright concerns. The producers were misguided: The parodies probably led more people to watch the actual film than would have without their notoriety. It's a well-made film, particularly because it manages to deal with an inherent problem: Would a dramatization of the last days of Hitler and his coterie tend to glamorize their futile struggle to survive, turning it into something like heroism? Ganz's superb performance helps the film sidestep that danger: His Hitler is humanized, to be sure, even to the point of once shedding a tear, but ultimately it's a portrait of repellent fanaticism and megalomania. He's a twitchy old man, one hand held behind his back in a palsied claw, but it's easy to see how the rather beleaguered men and women who surround him could be filled with a terrified awe of the man. I'm not particularly happy with the framing of Downfall, however. I think the decision to see much of the story through the eyes of Hitler's pretty secretary, Traudl Junge, shifts the focus away from the desperate horror of the final days, using a somewhat glossy survival story to keep the audience entertained. The footage of the real Traudl Junge that begins and ends the film doesn't much help illuminate why the "ordinary" German could be hoodwinked by Nazism, and her insistence that she didn't know of the true horrors of the Reich feels a little specious. There are, however, some moments of genuine drama in the film that emphasize how foul a spell Hitler cast over his followers, particularly the hysterical collapse of the otherwise icy Magda Goebbels at Hitler's feet when she realize the end is at hand. She pulls herself together and then proceeds to systematically murder her five children. I also liked the depiction of the cynicism of the Nazis who, when someone reminds them of the plight of the German people, sneeringly retort that it was their fault for bringing them to power in the first place. There's a lesson in the film somewhere for contemporary Americans, but I don't want to be the one to spell it out. Kudos to Stephan Zacharias for avoiding Wagnerian clichés in his score, although I thought the quotation from Purcell's aria "When I Am Laid in Earth" might have been a touch too sentimental.

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