Monday, 5 April 2010

You Must Be On Stage When The Curtain Falls.

I truly and honestly believe that Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler in the 2004 German film Der Untergang is one of the greatest performances I've ever seen on screen. I also think that a lot of that comes from his (and director Oliver Hirshbiegel's) courage in showing Hitler not as a maniacal monster, inhuman and something akin to the devil, but rather as a real person. They humanised Hitler, but without letting you feel sympathetic towards what he did. Rather, you leave the film recognising that, yes, he and those around him were truly awful people who committed unspeakable atrocities and who should burn in the darkest recesses of hell forever, but they were just people who inspired such fervent following amongst their people through a steadfast and passionate belief in what they were doing. That their beliefs were disgusting is irrelevant here - they were willing to die for what they stood for, and that allows comparisons to be drawn to any story where a protagonist might follow his heart and beliefs against the grain of society.

Please do realise that I am in no way trying to condone everything that Nazi Germany is responsible for. But I do think that demonising the perpetrators to a point where they lose any semblance of actually being 'ordinary' people is counterproductive to any attempts to sway people from similar beliefs. In the same way that extraordinary actions can see mere mortals lifted to the level of demi-god or near-deity, serious and prolonged damning can achieve the same thing in reverse. Rather than lifting them to the status of saints you are dropping them the world of Satan's right hand men, but you are still lifting them onto a pedestal of sorts from where it becomes feasible to worship them in much the same way if you are of the crazed persuasion that lends itself in that direction.

Der Untergang (Downfall) is the story of the last days of Hitler in his bunker in Berlin as the Allied and Soviet forces decimate his own armies and get closer and closer to bringing about the inevitable collapse of the Third Reich. Hitler and his cohorts Goebbels, Himmler et al, with families, troops, employees and cohorts, are locked in their underground home as bombs fall outside and their world comes crumbling down around them. But they hold strong to their beliefs, despite the looming deaths of almost all remaining soldiers and civilians - Hitler's stance is that they are better off dead than living in a world where he is not ruler. They occupants try to hold strong to the life they were living, keeping up appearances and obeying the F├╝hrer, even as his orders become more and more ridiculous and his grasp on the calamity fast arriving seems slippery. He is ordering battalions that do not exist or exist only in very reduced form to advance or encircle or march on a front that they can never reach. His advisers and generals live in fear of him, knowing that it is suicide for them all but unable to convince him calmly otherwise, therefore getting on with his lunatic orders for fear that they will be accused of treason and summarily executed.

As the day of defeat becomes apparent, many of the inhabitants seek refuge in suicide, with some going so far as to see that their children are also removed from the equation - something that may almost be more humane than the memory that their parents were named Goebbels and they sang for the biggest mass murderer in memory. Grueling days and trying nights end in history happening exactly as we remember (unlike the revisionist retelling from Tarantino with Inglourious Basterds), with the burning bodies of the leaders of the regime and a surrender resulting in a forty-odd year of Berlin division.

Ganz is truly phenomenal. He doesn't let up, not for a second. His afflictions and weaknesses are there on show even as he parades his power and screams for more. His supports complement him, though nothing can ever match the furious force of the marauding Hitler.

Hirschbiegel somehow manages to make the film itself feel calm as everything happens within it, limiting any serious flourishes to allow the atrocious behaviour of the Nazis and the glory of the performance to cut right through the coldly beautiful cinematography of Rainer Klausmann. Der Untergang ends as a terrifying document of terrible ideas executed so well for so long before thankfully falling in a sad and deadly heap. It is a tremendously powerful film, one that is not easily forgotten.

I remember seeing it in cinemas with my mother. She didn't really like it, though she could appreciate the technical elements. While she was not alive in WWII, both of her parents served in some capacity within it - her mother remaining in Australia and I believe working in telegraphs as the Japanese threat on Sydney became very apparent, while her father served in Africa, Asia and (I think...) a little in Europe. She said it all felt a bit close, and that the way the story was told (ie with Hitler as a person rather than a monster) made it very hard for her to watch. And I can understand that, for those close, it would be a very difficult film. But for those of us that weren't close, it is an important film, precisely to remind us that he was a person, because with all that is now written about the man and the regime, he is becoming more like folklore and myth and less like the person who once lived next door. 

5 stars.

1 comment:

  1. Really outstanding post, and I agree with you. Bruno Ganz has done an amazing job at creating a vile/live Hitler that one can recognize as human while detesting all the more. Very well-written post.