Thursday, May 29, 2008

THE REICHSTAG ADVENTURE. While everyone else was enjoying Recount, I was attending a film about another great historical disaster, Downfall. It's certainly wonderful to see the great Bruno Ganz impersonate Hitler. We are introduced to him in 1942, where he is not flailing and screaming but visibly strange in a classically narcissistic way; he shows kindness, but at a palpable personal remove -- speaking to his prospective secretaries as if they were dumb creatures requiring soft speech to function properly -- that suggests his later ravings about the insufficiency of the German people didn't come from a last-minute psychological adjustment to disaster, but out of the core of his being.

Later, of course, when things are going less well for the Reich, we do see him flailing and screaming -- some of it has been memorably re-subtitled for YouTube parodies. And we get morose lethargy, truculence, delusory attachment to petty details, and so on. The most interesting section, Hitler-wise, comes in his final meeting with Albert Speer (the excellent Heino Ferch), who reveals that he has consciously failed to carry out the Fuhrer's "orders of destruction" and waits for a reaction. Hitler breaks a pencil -- quietly, with the palms of his hands -- adjusts his hair, stares away; pouts. Speer -- having survived his insufficient act of resistance -- gets up from his chair. "So you're leaving," says Hitler. "Good. Auf wiedersehen." He refuses to shake Speer's hand before he goes. He could have had him shot. That he doesn't is not an act of mercy, but of peevishness.

That's the kind of detail that sometimes makes Downfall more interesting than your run-of-the-mill historical drama. But it's from the Hitler part, and the solitude and mystery of the dictator seem to have spurred the imagination of the filmmakers more than the documentary events that make up most of the film. For these, Downfall is simply an efficient reenactment. It is something to see all these Nazis, infamous and obscure, facing their elaborately choreographed Gotterdammerung. And, to their credit, the filmmakers give enough clues to allow us to backwards-engineer the disaster in our minds: if these guys couldn't disobey orders as the Russians were encircling Berlin, you can imagine what they were like when things were going well.

But there doesn't seem to be much more to it than that: the Third Reich was an awful mistake, as you can see by the result. (It even invites fleeting sarcastic thoughts: Sure, hindsight's always 20-20.) The characters' varied reactions to the approach of disaster (from wild parties to fretful brooding) are believable and sometimes poignant but seldom illuminating. The few heroics and the abundant follies are alike swept up and engulfed in the horrible tide of events.

It seems terrible to say so, given the seriousness of the subject, but it can't be helped: Downfall is basically a disaster flick: multiple characters trapped in a Reich turned upside-down, each doing a star turn expressing some signal weakness or strength before his or her gruesome death or grateful rescue. In fact, for all its craft it's not up to the standards of Irwin Allen. Paul Newman's architect in The Towering Inferno was only first among glamorous equals; the architect of the Holocaust steals Downfall outright. I can't read Wim Wenders' complaint, available only in German, but I hear he was pissed about that. Maybe I flatter myself by assuming from translated snippets that he shares my view that this is primarily a dramatic problem. I certainly believe the makers meant well, but as Max Bialystock learned to his regret, you can't let Hitler have all the good lines.

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