It is customary in many countries to watch WWII movies during the first week of May, thus commemorating the atrocities that took place now over 70 years ago.
In those movies, the tragedy is kept alive, being brought on screens – to preserve the memories, to remind of the warnings, to hope that the same never happens again.
In 2004, Germany produced DOWNFALL (Der Untergang), focusing on the life of a young woman who becomes Hitler’s secretary not long before Berlin is taken by the Russian Army.
The film is made in the best story telling tradition, with a typical and recognizable German attention to detail. Some scenes are artistically over-dramatized, to enhance the impact the tragedy had on people involved in it, and their descendants. Not an easy task, perhaps, but Germany did it again, and did it well. Is it the need to rehabilitate itself that drives German cinematography to the highest production quality when it comes to a WWII movie? Whatever the reason, due diligence was done in creating historically accurate and believable characters, and emotionally honest scenes that sort of imprint, visually, the statements of truth.
A special comment needs to be made on the brilliant performance of Bruno Ganz in the role of Adolf Hitler. Playing one of the most complex and dark villains in human history is not a walk in a park. Certainly, Bruno Ganz did well in studying his role and making sure the image he created is not stereotypical, but very much correct, exact to the point of body language and Hitler’s nervous tics. That is a very scary thing to do for a film actor – getting under the skin of such an evil figure, penetrating inside his mind, staying in this dark character for the duration of production, living with the after-taste. Undoubtedly, Ganz succeeded in bringing Hitler from the past closer to us today – and in that, there’s a certain element of horror, subtle, perhaps not immediately recognized, but apparent after a moment of contemplation. What we, normal people, like to believe, is that evil is not natural, not human and must, therefore, be explained by some sort of anomaly, disease, mental condition…. How many biographers dissected Hitler’s personality? How much literature has been written on his personalia? Well, that all becomes irrelevant when a living, breathing tirant is addressing the audience, comfortably sitting in soft chairs of cinema theaters. Bruno Ganz’s performance made a very powerful point – Hitler was a human being, sane and smart and if not for his monstrous side, he could have been a next door neighbor. Humanity shows in his patient attitude, his caring smile, his compassionate speech…. Only we know that that is the most incredible of lies. Realization that Hitler is one of us is definitely the toughest truth anyone could ever want to deal with.
DOWNFALL is also built on dialogues with evergreen and characteristic statements, designed to make us think, analyze, go deeper into the human soul. WWII is the ugliest of all human tragedies, it still affects generations, and its impact is still felt worldwide. When the film’s main character leaves falling Berlin behind, she does not depart empty handed – with her, she takes the emotional trauma of her nation, memories that will haunt her and pain that will trouble her for decades after.
We’re still dealing with consequences of WWII, with mysteries and cover-ups, seeking absolution and redemption, but the resolution has yet to come.
Copyright Camilla Stein ©2013. All rights reserved.