- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

German imports take the art-house spotlight in Washington this week and next. “Downfall,” which opens Friday, placed director Oliver Hirschbiegel and producer-screenwriter Bernd Eichinger in the recent Academy Award finals for best foreign-language film. They failed to win, but they have left a powerful new impression of a daunting historical subject, the death throes of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle while sheltered in bunkers beneath Berlin’s Reichstag building as the Soviet army surrounds the shattered capital and closes in for a final victory.

“Schultze Gets the Blues,” which opened yesterday, is a first feature written and directed by Michael Schorr, who attempts to disarm audiences with a picaresque fable about a retired German miner, Horst Krause’s Schultze, who becomes so obsessed with the sound of a zydeco band on the radio that he undertakes an odyssey to Cajun music country in Texas and Louisiana.

It has been almost 50 years since the German movie industry devoted a feature to the last days of Hitler. The great Austrian director G.W. Pabst directed an absorbing and spellbinding account titled “The Last Act” in 1956. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s comparably ambitious and sobering reassessment was prompted by the publication of two books, Joachim Fest’s “The Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker” and Traudle Junge’s “Until the Final Hour,” the memoirs of a young woman who became Hitler’s private secretary in 1942.

“I can’t recall a movie that has so many suicides in it,” Mr. Hirschbiegel reflects during a phone conversation. “We were dealing with a situation in which they occurred by the thousands on a daily basis. So we had to recognize that without engulfing the audience in suicides. They happened, and many of them derived from an attitude that went back a long time to the Prussian army. Officers often killed themselves after losing a battle.”

This fatalistic tradition has its pitfalls for modern dramatists, Mr. Hirschbiegel believes. “The problem with depicting suicides is that they can partake of something heroic,” he says. “Even if you believe it reflects moral cowardice, as I do in the case of the Hitler apparatus: Many people just couldn’t face the consequences of their actions. But no matter how you stage it, there can be this aura of something gallant and sacrificial.”

Mr. Hirschbiegel pointedly averts the camera from a conclusion that had eyewitnesses: Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, putting a bullet through the head of his wife Magda and then himself in a courtyard outside the bunkers.

The director felt somewhat inhibited by the historical record when it came to Hitler and his mistress, Eva Braun. “We have no witnesses to that scene,” he explains. “It happened behind closed doors. A bullet had been fired, and a poison capsule had been used. I thought I should confine myself to what had been seen before the door closed and then after it was opened again.”

He felt differently about the single most shocking death sequence in the movie: Magda Goebbels methodically sedating her children and then closing their mouths on poison capsules. “I made it a painfully long scene,” he observes, “because it seemed to me that in this act, Magda summarizes the final decadence and heartlessness of the regime. She completely closes herself off from what it means to be a mother and a human being. It becomes a metaphor for what happened in the camps.”

A prominent director of television dramas and mysteries for two decades, Mr. Hirschbiegel was born in Hamburg in 1957 and gravitated to movies after having initial aspirations as a painter. He recalls “always being lectured about our history” while a student. The cliche “coming to terms with history” became insufferable to him.

“I wanted answers,” he recalls, “and one reason they were so hard to come by is that this figure, Adolf Hitler, was always being presented as a monstrous being who had somehow come over the German people by witchcraft. He was a mass murderer whose human aspects were also conspicuous, and he should be treated like that. How can you ever come to terms with a person who caused so much destruction and grief? You can’t, but you have an obligation to find out all you can. Germans will be brooding about Hitler for hundreds of years.”

Passing through Washington on a national promotional jaunt, “Schultze Gets the Blues” director Michael Schorr explains that he first toured the South about a decade earlier, attracted in part by zydeco bands and clubs.

The movie’s protagonist, Schultze, who plays accordion in his hometown polka band, is lured by the sound of the same instrument in a zydeco recording. “The link is through the instrument,” Mr. Schorr remarks. “It’s my impression that zydeco developed from the music of French immigrants in the gulf states. Schultze can relate to it because he recognizes a common foundation.”

Born in a Riesling-growing region of southwestern Germany in the late 1960s, Mr. Schorr wrote his original draft for “Schultze” in the wake of his first exposure to the South.

“It was rewritten extensively ten years later,” he says, “when it became possible to envision a movie being made. I always had the same leading actor in mind. Horst Krause had been stereotyped on German television for years as a big, funny guy. This is his first leading role. In the intervening years, I had the experience of living in a mining town where the industry had closed down, so I combined that social setting with the idea of Schultze falling in love with zydeco music.”

According to the director, his movie exceeded expectations in Germany and has held its own in other European markets, though the reception is spotty from country to country. “Schultze” won festival awards in Spain and Sweden to build up initial momentum.

Financed by a German television company that has branched out into features (“typically shown on Mondays after midnight so the risk is minimal”), Mr. Schorr’s venture had such a tight budget and schedule that “shooting in strict chronological order” seemed the most practical plan.

“We had little time to prepare upfront,” he explains. “We had scouted the American locations long before, of course. But the actors came on set the day we started, in an East German town that once had working copper and salt mines. Everything was easier for them if we shot in continuity. Even the last scene, which returns to Schultze’s hometown, was done at the very end, after we returned from the American locations.”

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