- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

“Downfall” demands a substantial measure of morbid historical curiosity, but it’s an impressive achievement of a disheartening kind. Arguably a long overdue reassessment of permanently haunted events, it returns to a subject that was confronted in the middle 1950s by the great Austrian filmmaker G.W. Pabst.

Looking back only a decade in his gripping but now obscure “The Last Act,” retitled “The Last Ten Days” in American release, Mr. Pabst summarized the last acts of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle when cornered in the sprawling bunker system under the Reichstag building as the Soviet army stormed Berlin at the end of April 1945. “Downfall” likewise exposes us to the Hitler apparatus during the final days of the Third Reich.

Always a master of atmosphere, Mr. Pabst at age 70 created an indelible impression of despotism wearily and bitterly contemplating extinction. At the center of this countdown to doom, Albin Skoda as Hitler dragged around a weary and defeatist detachment that was creepier than his fitful rants.

Bruno Ganz’s performance in “Downfall” invests far more operatic frenzy into the rants, leaving a sharper contrast between resigned and agitated moods. There’s also more of Hitler in the new film, perhaps reflecting scenes drawn from the specific source material: a recent history by Joachim Fest titled “Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker” and the memoirs of Hitler’s private secretary, Traudl Junge, “Until the Final Hour.”

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has supervised an elaborate reconstruction of the bunker complex, built at the same Munich studio that contained the submarine replicas of “Das Boot.” There are also recurrent combat interludes, shot in St. Petersburg and designed to simulate ongoing battles in the vicinity of the Reichstag.

The canvas entrusted to Mr. Hirschbiegel by writer-producer Bernd Eichinger is at once broader and deeper than the one that sufficed 50 years ago. “Downfall” also reflects a coldblooded obligation to observe the suicides that surround Hitler as his own demise approaches.

As this body count piles up, one may appreciate the forced cheerfulness of Juliane Kohler’s Eva Braun, determined to be the sunniest presence in a deathtrap.

The gravely priceless fragments include evidence of the strange self-confidence of Ulrich Noethen’s Heinrich Himmler, eager to escape the confinement of the bunker in order to dictate terms to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, whom he envisions as a pushover.

Mr. Ganz’s Hitler grows repeatedly heated about a sense of betrayal that a modern German director may really want to drive home: the Fuehrer’sontempt for the German populace.

From Hitler’s perspective the Volk, though prodigiously depleted, have failed to live up to the world/historical vision he intended to will into existence. As a consequence, they deserve whatever penalties await them under the Russian dispensation. Hitler takes some comfort in the thought that he has slaughtered millions of Jews, ridding Europe of that burden.

Despite the magnitude of Hitler’s rationales for mass murder, the single scariest figure in the movie is Corinna Harfouch’s Magda Goebbels, an implacable and intimate minister of death as she methodically sedates and then poisons her children. Having completed that heartless task, she deals herself a hand of solitaire, establishing a belated rapport with Raymond Shaw’s despotic mother in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

****

TITLE: “Downfall”

RATING: R (Frequent graphic violence in an authentic historical setting; occasional profanity; depictions of wartime combat, atrocities and suffering)

CREDITS: Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Produced and written by Bernd Eichinger, based on the books “Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker” by Joachim Fest and “Until the Final Hour” by Traudl Junge and Melissa Mueller. Cinematography by Rainer Klausmann. Production design by Bernd Lepel. Costume design by Claudia Bobsin. Makeup by Waldemar Pokromski and Margrit Neufink. Editing by Hans Funck. Music by Stephan Zacharias. In German with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes

WEB SITE

: www.downfallthe

film.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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