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Der Untergang (Downfall) - arthouse and international DVD / drama DVD review
Rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 5 stars
Featuring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler
Directors: Oliver Hirschbiegel   Distributor: Sony Pictures
DVD release: 02 August 2005   Runtime: 155 minutes
(1 disc)
Format: AC-3, Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, Subtitled, NTSC
DVD Features: Audio tracks (German - Dolby Digital 5.1), Subtitles (English), Audio Commentary w/ director Oliver Hirschbiegel, The Making Of Downfall, Cast and crew interviews (Oliver Hirschbiegel - Director; Melissa Muller - Author; Bruno Ganz - Adolf Hitler; Alexandra Maria Lara - Traudl Junge; Juliane Kohler - Eva Braun)

During the last days of World War II, as the Russian Red Army approaches Berlin and Germany's defeat seems imminent, Hitler and the elite of the Third Reich escape to the Reich's Chancellery bunker in subterranean Berlin to make plans and strategize. As reports of the war filter in, it is obvious to Hitler's generals and top officials that the war is lost, yet they are reluctant to show him the real situation. Terrified of Hitler's manic burst of rage, anger and theaterical chest-thumping, these men indulge the Fuehrer to the end in his fantasies of overturning the present situation and ultimately winning the war.

Oliver Hirschbiegel's Der Untergang (Downfall) is told from the point of view of Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary during his last days. The film opens to a interview of the real Traudl Junge, an elderly lady who, as she reminisces about her days in Hitler's bunker, gives us a peek at those last days of Hitler's life. Later in life, Junge went on record (and this is shown in the film) to say that she had no idea then that Hitler and the Nazis had perpetrated such heinous crimes; despite being just a lowly secretray with no real role in the scheme of things, she felt bitter and angry at herself for having been part of Hitler's staff. She also said that the Hitler she knew was very different from the maniac the world saw. That, in a nutshell is the main theme of Der Untergang: that the Nazis, too, had a human face, and that men who can make others commit heinous crimes often have their own ways of conveying inspiration, tenderness and understanding.

Bruno Ganz is absolutely brilliant in the role of Adolf Hitler. He wavers between softness and tenderness (the scene where he sings with the Goebbels' kids, and his understanding toward Traudl) and maniacal tendencies. We see a childlike demeanor when he sets eyes on a miniature model fo an opera house and his fragility at his last hour, when he stands broken, defeated and shattered. One wonders why director Oliver Hirschbiegel drew so much flak for this humane, balanced treatment of the characters. Nowhere in the film do they arouse any sympathy in us. On the contrary - watching a maniac being capable of kindess and tenderness is a bit unsettling.

We see Hitler's complete lack of compassion toward his on people, yet it is strange that the same people are inspired by him. There is this scene where Hitler steps out of the bunker to award medals to young kids for valor. It is Hitler's decision that these teenage boys and girls, or "Hitler youths," fight a losing battle against the Russian army across the bridges in Berlin. But these kids are in awe of him and worship him. Later, we see how Hitler doesn't blink before ordering the flooding of the underground system to halt the unstoppable Russian Army, despite knowing that all hospitals with injured men operate underground. The film then cuts to a character saying "der Fuehrer is der Fuehrer."

The serious, somber film has its share of light moments. Himmler's line "When I meet Eisenhower, should I give him the Nazi salute or should I shake his hand?" had me chuckling.

Der Untergang has a fabulous score, touching and melancholic. Obviously with a subject matter such as this, one does not expect anything joyous. Stephen Zacharias' musice, while restrained and unobtrusive, still conveys the bitter tragedy. While the opening cue of "Des Fuehrers Sekretaerin" captures this feeling of despair beautifully and sets the tone for the whole film (see, I was particularly moved by the "Eva Brauns letzter Brief," a lovely movement carrying strains of poignancy and sadness. The last part of the score and my favorite, "Spaete Einsicht" has traces of some buoyant feelings, probably to capture the sentiment that the end of a war is also the time for a new beginning.

The film ends with brief information on what happened to the others in the bunker. Traudl Junge eventually escaped past the Soviet lines. Of the more famous ones, Himmler committed suicide during his imprisonment and trial; Jodl was hanged after the Nuremberg trials.

Der Untergang is an absolutely must-see film, revealing the human face of tyrants and maniacs, a face that can inspire, cajole, and force people to commit horrible acts, believing them to be for the greater good. What can be more chilling than Magda Goebbels telling Hitler of her decision to leave her six young children dead than live without National Socialism and the Fuehrer?
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reviewed by Shampa Chatterjee
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