Tuesday, March 08, 2005

On "Downfall"

A two-and-a-half hour movie about Hitler during the last days of the War. Sounds thrilling, right? Actually, surprisingly enough, it is. Bruno Ganz plays der Fuhrer with gusto, getting at his every neurosis and maniacal self-delusion; undoubtedly, there will be many who will remark that this film is anathema because Hitler is not portrayed as a monster. This is particularly true when he interacts with his secretary, Traudl Junge, the person who we most clearly identify with throughout the film. The way in which many of the characters blindly follow his every move, entrances by his zeal for power, is truly fascinating. The film is also wonderfully cold: I find it fascinating that we feel something oxymoronic between empathy and emptiness as we watch character upon character die. Downfall has a horrific impact precisely because it strips all sense of character down to the very human and shows how horribly cruel it can be.

I've been thinking a lot about national cinematic identity these days (clearly -- since that's what my work is all about) and I must admit that following this film I wish I knew German, because I really would love to know what Germans think about this film. One of the interesting things about the film -- and I think this is new to cinema, and a bit controversial -- is that it shows Hitler to be a cruel, unfliching fanatic... but not because of his treatment of the Jews, but because of his utter disdain for the Germans.

Let me back up a moment. Angela told me that the Poles did not care for Schindler's List all that much when it was released because it focused on how cruel the Nazis were to the Jews while demonizing (and thereby ignoring) the plight of the Poles, who were equally massacred and sent to the camps. When I saw The Pianist, I thought to myself, "Gee, the Poles should like this one, given that it treats the Poles in a more favorable light, also showing their real danger. Being a German film, Downfall plays an interesting role in retelling this story both from a German perspective and to a German public. I am sure that the film (although based on a book, probably doesn't have the same impact that the film did, particularly after it was nominated for an Oscar this year) has sparked a discussion amongst Germans about how does one reconcile the past into the present, and how "German identity" has become extraordinarily problematic. (An aside: this makes two movies I've seen set in Germany concerning Nazis -- the other, an Israeli film called Walk on Water, is not as deftly crafted but could enter into this cinematic conversation with a contemporary perspective.) I would love to read what German critics in particular have been saying about the film as I imagine they'd have a slightly less distant take on it than the couple reviews I've read online from The Village Voice and Salon.

If anyone else gets a chance to see this, le tme know what you think of it -- and whether this rambling seems to make sense or not.

1 comment:

Mrs. Non-Gorilla said...

according to much of what i've read, "german identity" is less problematic now than it was during the decades immediately following ww2. the generation that lived through the war is now dying off; their "boomers" and younger have no personal recollection of the war. add that to the growing german influence in the EC (marked by the west german willingness to rock the entire common market by embracing the former DDR), and the issues raised by downfall and similar movies & books can be noted and set aside.