Issues with Der Untergang (to use the correct title). One: internet parody (which we won’t mention again). Two: the setting, those final days down the Führerbunker not renowned for gaiety. And three: ghosts – for if there is such a thing as collective psyche (which there isn’t), Germany’s has long been sponsored by the weight of twentieth-century history. British and American audiences have been familiar with Hitler as cinematic presence from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator onwards, but Der Untergang was the first mainstream German movie to witness a German-speaking actor portray him as recognisably human.
Points two and three, I’d suggest, are important. And did I mention that this is a mainstream proposition? Budget enough to have Berlin (or a St Petersburg suburb standing in for Berlin) eviscerated by Soviet artillery? The majority of scenes are set in the subterranean concrete mortuary built beneath a courtyard of the Reich Chancellery complex – the risk being one of claustrophobia overwhelming the narrative, and therefore turning the majority of the audience off. So it is that the parallel storylines function as context (if not exactly light relief); the doctor devoted to his Hippocratic Oath despite the overwhelming odds against him. The embittered father, disabled by war, powerless to prevent family disintegrating amidst the suicide mission of Berlin’s defence. The (self-admitted) ignorance of silly girl secretary Traudl Junge, still eager to take correspondence no matter how close the enemy.
In the latter regard, Der Untergang could be considered a film about loyalty. Indeed, alongside Junge’s memoirs, source material for this movie included Albert Speer’s prison-written Inside The Third Reich – both a meditation upon the duality of subservience and a damning (if self-serving) indictment of the decadence underpinning that most morally repugnant of regimes. Of all the high ranking Nazis, Speer – architect turned Minister of Armaments – is portrayed as an almost compassionate figure; both acutely conscious of the endgame’s particulars, and visibly shaken at their futility.
Indeed, one key element behind the film’s dramatic tension is in how each protagonist internalises the onrushing doom. Army Generals, charged with swatting away the Soviet advance with both arms tied behind their backs. Junior officers, trading gulag futures for another glass of schnapps. Blind faith in the ultimate victory rubs up against an almost joyful fatalism, and the shells rain down, the noose pulls tighter, those left in the city – the old and the young and the Hitlerjugend taking on tanks with tennis rackets – die senseless deaths… this is not a movie in which spoilers are an issue (clue: the von Trapp family win Nazi Eurovision with their subtle blend of schmaltz and even more schmaltz, but flee over the mountains to Switzerland before the prizes are handed out; the end).
Der Untergang takes its responsibility toward historical authenticity seriously. As such, any sensationalism is rationed to underline the human tragedy of warfare – SS doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck, stumbling across a cellar full of lost souls waiting patiently to die. The problem with adhering closely to source material, however, is that fact is a muddy commodity at the best of times, let alone during the fatal chaos of a city falling (and the subsequent vacuum in which survivor testimony can always soft-soap the actualité). Downfall plays it straight, with little room for conjecture – which (paradoxically) has invited scholarly criticism in terms of overlooked events (such as the flooding of the S-Bahn tunnels and associated deaths, alleged but never proven to have been Nazi sabotage), and portrayals of key figures such as Schenck and SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke that, whilst not exactly sympathetic, fail to address murky reputation.
It’s a delicate balance, eschewing sensationalism in favour of a matter-of-fact account of Führerbunker end days whilst simultaneously channelling the audience away from any inappropriate sympathies (for after all, the bunker was populated by humans, not cartoon villains, and it’s disingenuous to imply otherwise). This is an equilibrium producer/writer Bernd Eichinger and director Oliver Hirschbiegel pull off not only through use of each of the wider city’s unravelling sub-plots, but also by fashioning alignment between the politics of desperation and the mundanity of evil.
Four performances in particular stand out. Juliane Köhler’s Eva Braun, Corinna Harfouch and Ulrich Matthes as parenthood’s Magda and Joseph Goebbels, and (of course) Bruno Ganz. The success here is not so much in the interplay between the quartet (because there’s very little) than a sly application of presence. Braun the good time gal, head in the Weimar Republik, heart in the grave. Magda Goebbels, her little duckings in tow, she enters the bunker already dead inside – we’re just left waiting for the coup de grâce. These interpretations of character are understated yet rich in texture, studies not in tyranny but the Nazi appropriation of womanhood (and all the contradictions implied there-in, Braun the apolitical country girl, drawn into Hitler’s web by serendipity as much as anything else; Goebbels the ardent party member, icon of Reich motherhood, uterus committed to the Fatherland even if the rest of her could frequently be spotted in someone else’s bed).
Ganz as Hitler is the headline-grabbing turn, and rightly so. A necessarily meticulous interpretation, the film’s entire premise dependent upon the degree at which his performance pivots. By the beginning of 1945, both the Führer’s mental and physical faculties had decayed to such an extent as to make accurate portrayals hanging in the narrow gap between early-war Hitler (itself a strange mix of sanitised newsreel statesman disguising the lupine charisma and uncontrollable rage), and some sort of bat-shit crazy hobgoblin, single-handedly waging a war increasingly removed from the one everyone else was fighting. Ganz, of course, is a formidable actor and a dignified screen presence – the only watchable element of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, for example – but as Hitler he’s mesmerising. Never comfortable viewing (which as it should be), and not so dominant as to wrench the scene away from either narrative or those he’s sharing screen time with. Instead, a study in paranoia. Frailty, megalomania, defeat, incandescence, and above all, mannerism. The hours Bruno Ganz invested studying photographs and the breadth of archive footage for telltale tics and twitches. The wrapping of his own Swiss vocal chords around Hitler’s camp Austro-Bavarian bark. The nuance behind degenerative physicality, an almost graceful subjugation of the impact of Parkinson’s Disease upon the body’s straight lines. It’s a stunning performance of balletic proportions, working within constructs of humanity but also exposing Hitler for the sham of a human he always was.
Yet as riveting as Ganz is, this isn’t his film. The studio facsimile of the Führerbunker – as faithful a reinterpretation as memory and rudimentary plans permit – represents a neutral backdrop; stale and sterile and damp and close but also loose with it, odd items of soft furnishings dragged down the stairs from the Chancellery above only adding to the vague sense of disjointed blank. And it’s a realm that belongs not to Hitler but his Minister of Propaganda. Ulrich Matthes does not have significant dialogue. The camera rarely lingers upon his death mask features – if anything, it acts as if repelled by his presence. Yet Goebbels is present. Insidiously present, gliding through corridors like a music hall spectre. Standing silent in the background, subtle smirk playing across his lips as the cabal of ill-trusted Generals perspire at Hitler’s rage.
It’s a portrayal of such understated malevolence as to bleed through the screen. Wim Wenders – him again – may have criticised the movie for failing to hammer home the regime’s brutality, but he completely misses the aperture through which evil is delivered. If loyalty’s paydirt is denial, then as the professional soldiers (or the majority at least) cling to duty, so those comprising the inner sanctum slip further into a Neverland existence. All except Speer, who knows explicitly how the end game will play out and thus is horrified by its senselessness, and Goebbels, the personification of death cult (and, like his wife, another serial philanderer), who actively celebrates the dénouement. With each exposure of frigid, bug-eyed stare splayed above that caustic smile, he welcomes the Reich’s destruction, the body count and the salting of the earth, because the onrushing all-out void validates all that he believes in. Believes in to the extent that sacrificing his children upon its altar is natural progression (Magda, assisted by a jettisoned-in Dr Death, may actually commit the multiple acts of filicide, but it’s her husband, hovering patiently beyond the cell door like an obscene parody of expectant father waiting for his wife to give birth, who controls the situation).
Historical propriety; this isn’t an argument that Goebbels represented the power behind the throne during Nazi Germany’s implosion; neither is this implied in the film, regardless of Hitler’s increasingly tenuous grip upon reality. However, his devotion to the cause above all else – even life itself – is representative of the true horror at Downfall’s heart. An astonishing portrayal, exposing the magnitude of humanity’s callous inflexions. “I feel no sympathy. I repeat, I feel no sympathy. The German people chose their fate. That may surprise some people, but don’t fool yourself. We didn’t force the German people. They gave us a mandate, and now their little throats are being cut.”
Der Untergang; a fascinating film, formidably paced and superbly cast. It challenges without carrying art-house pretension; there is, I’d suggest, something within the narrative for experimental cinema to feed upon (the bunker’s real-time CCTV footage, a dissonant techno soundtrack sprayed over the top – that would be fun viewing for all the family), but any pursuit of specific theme could only detract from the wider angle, Ten Days in Berlin coverage the film aims for.
Not that Downfall’s exploration of the fall of the German capital is panoramic; the Soviet presence is incoming tide left unprodded once it breaks, the point of view exclusively German and predominantly militaristic, civilians there for the pot. Also, by splaying the narrative focus across and beyond ensemble, engagement is tempered by the need to throw the audience a bone in the final scene – a holding of hands signifying a sliver of hope amidst the carnage, rather than the oblique conclusion that would have slotted more neatly into mood (personally, I’d have had a closing shot of Hammer and Sickle being raised atop the Reichstag. In the rain. Whilst grubby shadows load the fallen onto hospital carts. Which is why I’m not a film director).
Yet interpreting Der Untergang as something it clearly isn’t is sham hackwork. This is a film that tackles its subject matter with cold consideration, protagonists left to forge their own agendas (not matter how fanciful or corrupt or degrading to all concerned). A movie that, quite simply, needed to be made; not only one of the finest films about the Second War World, but by presenting each character as fully developed (rather than tired Nazi cliché), also a savage exposé of humanity’s fallibility.