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'Downfall's' Undoing

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page WE37

"DOWNFALL" IS intriguing, oddly banal and ultimately deflating: a movie that revisits the final in-the-bunker days of genocidal killer Adolph Hitler (Bruno Ganz), his sweet dog Blondi and all those evil Nazis. Meanwhile, the Allies are advancing, and the German people are being pounded into smithereens above.

In Oliver Hirschbiegel's German film, Hitler's inner circle of Nazi cohorts includes his personal secretary Traudl Junge (whose testimony informed much of this movie and the decidedly more riveting documentary "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary"), Josef (Ulrich Matthes) and Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) and their family, and many other architects, direct and indirect, of the Holocaust.

Eva Braun (Juliane Koehler) and Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) live out their final days in a bunker in the German film "Downfall." (Newmarket Films)

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In "Downfall," you're forced to contemplate everyone as part of a relatively convivial office, a work party of like-minded bosses and employees who have the terrible misfortune to be in the direct path of the Allied forces. If American bombs don't get them, rapacious red Soviets will. The only graceful way out is cyanide pellets or a gun to the head. (The idea of facing the opposition and accounting for those war crimes is, of course, unthinkable.)

It's strange, being down there with this company. You're made to feel guilty of complicity. You're forced to see Hitler as a human being, albeit the weirdest one you've ever met, a gentleman with his employees and his dog. But a lunatic full of despair, disdain and paranoia, when it comes to managing his military demise. He's a full-range human, we're supposed to understand, even if he did hatch the darkest plan of the 20th century.

"Downfall," which also takes details from other sources on the subject, feels like coldblooded, made-for-television material. It achieves nothing, nor seeks to, in the visual virtuosity department. Instead, the drama is word- and plan-driven. The characters talk through and follow a historical sequence of events, as though they are patrons of the most bizarre murder mystery weekend of all time.

It's dull yet methodical, not bashful about its cruel details, such as when Goebbels's wife coolly discusses her intentions to poison her children rather than make them live without national socialism, or when Hitler's assistant shows no hesitation incinerating the dead Fuehrer and the remains of his new wife, Eva Braun (Juliane Koehler).

The film's most powerful elements are Ganz's persuasive performance as Hitler, a figure of gentility and irrationality, and the film's candor. Ganz's Hitler -- before he commits suicide -- speaks with pride of his all-but-eradication of the Jewish people of Europe. And Goebbels, Hitler's propagandist and right-hand man declares he feels "no sympathy" for the German people, who face unspeakable horrors from Allied bombings and Soviet brutality: "They gave us the mandate." But if you are meant to feel something for these people beyond rubberneck revulsion, those emotions aren't too apparent. And we are brought no closer to a human-based understanding of Hitler, if indeed there is such a thing.

DOWNFALL (R, 155 minutes) -- Contains violence and emotionally harrowing themes. In German with subtitles. At Loews Georgetown and Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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