April 14, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Downfall / Der Untergang

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Downfall / Der Untergang (2004)
Written by Bernd Eichinger, from a total of six nonfiction books
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Like many Americans, for most of my life I've had a natural fascination with the Nazi era of German history (1920s to '40s), primarily for two reasons when I was younger: because it was this group of people who most helped pull the US out of its isolationist "nation-building" phase and into its superpower years; and of course because it's difficult for most of us to even comprehend all the evil acts that were perpetrated during the Nazi years, difficult for us to understand how a society can even get that way in the first place, get to that place that is so tolerant of cruelty and violence and a complete disregard for human life. Or, that is, I guess I should say that it used to be difficult for many of us to understand how a society could get to such a place, which is then the third reason so many Americans are so fascinated with the Nazi years; because I and millions of other Americans believe that even the US itself has become a proto-fascist state in the 2000s under the Bushist neocons who are currently running our country, a populace which is not exactly supporting the killing of millions of other humans in the name of ethnic cleansing but that is certainly ready to, if only a few minor changes were to be made to our country's laws and constitution. It's been an emotionally devastating thing for so many of us Americans to watch happen in our country over the last half a decade, to watch so many of our fellow citizens become the exact xenophobic, superstitious, anti-intellectual hatemongers that allowed Nazis to take over Germany 75 years ago; it's made many of us turn once again to the historical record from those years, in a desperate attempt to understand what happened and how the worst of it can be avoided in Bush's America.

Downfall/Der Untergang

Because that's always the problem with such states, that they are always destined to crash and burn spectacularly at a certain point; and again, this is a subject which is making many Americans suddenly feel deeply uncomfortable and afraid these days, what with the recent collapse of the fifth largest bank in our country, a legitimate national foreclosure crisis that is turning entire suburbs into abandoned ghost-towns, and a dollar that is so weak internationally that most of us can't even afford to go backpacking anymore. And man, if you ever want a harrowing look at what exactly would happen in this country if the US dollar was to unexpectedly bottom out one day soon, look no further than the remarkable Downfall, the very first movie in German history to deal with the fall and collapse of the Nazi party in the summer of 1945, a movie that will terrify you as much as Schindler's List but for entirely different reasons. Because this film, see, is the flip side to all those horrific Holocaust movies that have been made over the decades; this is a movie about the German people themselves waking up at the end of the war, about an entire country coming out of their fascistic haze at the same time and suddenly seeing in the clear light of day exactly what monstrosities they've all been guilty of. It's the story of the weasels and cowards who took command in such situations, of the weasely and cowardly ways they acted when everything started going wrong; and by extension, it's a prophetic look at the Bush administration as well, and how we should not only expect but start planning now on that entire group to somehow slip off into the dark with their suitcases of money just the moment that sh-t starts hitting the fan.

Downfall/Der Untergang

In fact, if there is one overwhelming message this movie is trying to convey, it's that the way we often think of the Nazi years is a gross simplification, that it wasn't nearly a case of the entire German population becoming inhuman monsters but merely a small group of bullies and sadists at the top of it all who did, with tens of millions of others simply willing to go along with things and not cause waves. In fact, it's always important to remember when talking about this subject that even at their height, only 25 percent of the German population were official "card-carrying" members of the Nazi party itself, a number which can be eerily compared right now to the amount of Americans who consider themselves Bush-supporting conservatives. As far as I'm concerned, this is the one most important thing to understand about the rise of such societies, the one biggest surprise to how we've traditionally thought about the subject; that to be a supporter of such things, you don't nearly have to be guilty of such acts yourself, but merely too lazy or scared or preoccupied or sociopathic to protest the actions of those who are. That when you have a huge population that essentially doesn't give a crap, the criminals at the top can do pretty much whatever they want, as long as they make easy promises about protecting the populace in a time of national crisis.

Downfall/Der Untergang

Because that's the other thing that's always important to remember about the Nazis (and by extension the Bushists), that they were basically swept into power at one of the lowest moments in their country's history, precisely by making easy promises of protection and power and safety and then following it up with easy displays of such power and protection. After all, America hasn't had another major terrorist attack since September 11th, has it? And so it was with Hitler when he was in power as well, leading to the stereotypical joke about why Germans tolerated him for so long -- "Ja ja, Hitler might have been terrible, but he built the highways!" As this exquisite production shows precisely by avoiding the subject, it was easy for the Nazis to maintain power as long as everything was going well; as long as the economy kept improving, as long as the job-stealing foreign hoards were being kept out, as long as highways and buildings and electrical lines kept getting constructed. But screenwriter Bernd Eichinger (Perfume) and director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment) didn't want to explore that side of Nazism; Downfall is instead set entirely in the last week of World War II, shot entirely in Hitler's bunker and the surrounding block or two of Berlin where it was located, focusing entirely on the various ways the upper echelon of their party handled the downfall of Nazism and the end of the war itself.

Downfall/Der Untergang

In fact, I don't think it's any coincidence that such an intelligent film about Nazis would come from a German crew, shooting mostly with a German cast in a 2004 production that was as important historically to Germany's film industry as it was from an entertainment standpoint; because when all is said and done, these are some people doing a little national soul-searching, just like so many of us in America right now are spending so much time thinking about our fellow Americans, and how history is going to judge the times in which we live. And this is what's made Downfall so controversial since its initial release too, because it straddles that very fine and difficult line between showing the humanity behind all these monstrous events and empathizing with what those humans were doing. This is what makes the whole subject so difficult for Americans right now, after all, is that we look around us and we don't exactly see a bunch of monsters; our neighbors seem much like they always have, are still polite to us when we're out and randomly interacting, still hold doors and laugh at goofy jokes and yearn for quiet, happy lives. How do we reconcile this, then, with things like Guantanamo Bay? With soldiers getting caught on a daily basis raping and torturing and throwing puppies off cliffs, yet with us still collectively worshipping the military almost to the point of religious fervor? How do we reconcile this society of SUV-driving, "Cute Overload" loving suburbanites with the hate porn, Patriot Act, national watchlists and all the other monstrosities that will forever be associated with the Bush years?

Downfall/Der Untergang

This is the subject that the makers of Downfall take on, and their answer is a complex and varied one that rightly reflects the complexity regarding the entire subject of human darkness. Some of the people gathered around Hitler in his final days, for example, are the out-and-out criminal sociopaths that we have so conveniently turned all Nazis into in our collective minds over the years; humanity-haters who simply don't give a sh-t, who see themselves as simple results of what the German people in general wanted and voted for, so f-ck the German people if the war is now going bad and they're all about to get slaughtered or die of starvation, because they're only getting what they deserve. Other officials, though, clearly understand by the end just how individually guilty they've been of atrocities; some of them attempt to run, others accept that they're evil and simply commit suicide, while others become the true weasels they are and immediately start thinking of how they can sell out their fellow Nazis to the arriving Americans. Then there are people like Albert Speer, Hitler's main architect, who didn't personally commit any atrocious acts but certainly were aware what was going on with others; he's yet one more of the dozens of people spending the last days of the war in Hitler's labyrinthine underground Modernist maze (with amazing set design, by the way, from Bernd Lepel -- check out the DVD extras for a lot more), who like a small amount of others seems to finally accept his fate by the end, and become a truly remorseful person for not having done more, or at least running away from Germany during the Nazi years like so many of his fellow artists did.

Downfall/Der Untergang

That's the part about this movie that's controversial, of course, because it's difficult to portray the humanity behind war criminals without at least subtly looking like you're supporting the crimes too, no matter how much you deplore the actual crimes and despise the criminals for being guilty of them. Just for one excellent example, look here in Downfall at the curious case of Magda Goebbels, wife of true monster Joseph Goebbels and yet another person who rode out the end of the war in Hitler's bunker; she happened to be the mother of an entire Von-Trapp-like family of golden-blonde Aryan singing kids, and there's no more heartbreaking a scene in this movie than the one where she silently and tearfully kills them all in their sleep using poison tablets, even as we are disgusted with her for the heartless justification she uses for the mercy-killings themselves ("If my children cannot grow up in a Nazi society, I don't want them to live at all"). This movie is full of such moments, of humanity peeking through all these endless layers of cartoonish villainy; it is a subtle, difficult, impressive thing to pull off, and like I said I don't think it's any coincidence that most of the people involved with this production are German themselves, taking a look at what is now their grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation. (As a matter of fact, I happened to have been visiting Germany myself in 2004 when this movie first came out there; it inspired an entire nation's worth of fascinating drunken late-night conversations about how they view their checkered past, which made it a particularly great time to be an American tourist there.)

Downfall/Der Untergang

I know it's become a heavy-handed cliche by now to compare Bush and neocons to Hitler and the Nazis; but that's because it's so true, because there really is such a creepy and alarming amount of similarities between the ideologies of both groups, as well as the ways both of them managed to first gain and then hold onto power. The good part of that, though, maybe the only good thing to happen to this country since 9/11, is that it's made a lot of us much smarter about the issue; to realize, for example, that it's been wrong of us to look at fascism in a cartoonish outdated way, to associate it so concretely with goose-stepping weirdos with leather coats and funny little mustaches, that in fact all the dangerous things about fascism can bloom just as easily in an atmosphere of flag-waving, yellow-ribbon-sporting, American-Idol-worshipping NASCAR fans. It is fear and stupidity and anger and occultism that fosters such things, not red armbands and Wagnerian operas; Downfall does a great job of showing that, of stripping away all the cartoonish relics of Nazism itself, and showing the vulnerable humanity that lurks behind all these monstrous decisions and actions. It's a haunting film, a brilliant and highly uncomfortable one, one I encourage every American to see as soon as they can.

Out of 10:
Writing: 10
Acting: 10
Directing: 9.7
Cinematography: 9.8
Overall: 9.8

Read even more about Downfall: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:00 PM, April 14, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |