Opening Friday at the Belcourt
Early in the movie Downfall, Nazis scurry around Berlin announcing "Clausewitz is in effect," and even if you don't know that they're referring to Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz's advocation of "total war," the practical meaning of the phrase is clear. The store is closing down, and everything must go. Hitler's top commanders are at odds, some still working in the Reich's best interests, some grabbing for what power is left, and some displaying open insubordination. One won't execute an order to save money by denying the troops food, while another insists that the German people should shoulder the burden of hunger, and a third says that his only concern is, "Should I give Eisenhower a Nazi salute or shake his hand?"
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel made a dent in American arthouses a couple of years ago with Das Experiment, a blunt but effective illustration of how people live down to their assigned roles in life. Downfall plays a variation, using Adolf Hitler's last days as a model for the chaos and debauchery of civilization in full collapse. (As always in period films, debauchery is represented by topless women in bloomers, spilling wine.) Hirschbiegel has a flair for apocalypse, and if nothing else, Downfall makes good end-of-the-world theater.
Downfall also has Bruno Ganz delivering a rich performance as a Hitler with a soft exterior and a brittle center. Ganz is so good that he's generated controversy; just this past week, the director of the Israeli office of The Simon Wiesenthal Center said that he hopes his countrymen "vote with their feet and prefer not to see the movie." But "humanizing" evil is sometimes the only way to understand it. One of the most sublime cinematic statements on Hitler is Jay Rosenblatt's avant-garde short Human Remains, which reduces the führer and four other mass-murdering dictators to a litany of their health complaints and personal tastes. For Ganz's part, he supplies Hitler with personal charm, explaining his power to coerce and deceive.
The problem is that Downfall isn't really a Hitler movie per se, and all the emphasis on his quirks and weaknesses throws the film off-kilter. Hearing Hitler drop casually anti-Semitic comments doesn't have much impact without getting his full bio, "final solution" inclusive. Instead, Hirschbiegel and his team of screenwriters poke at the audience's preexisting knowledge of the character, playing the irony card with aggravating regularity. The opening scene has a young woman gushing over the fact that she's just been hired by Hitler. (Oh joy!) And the movie builds to Hitler pronouncements like his resigned insistence that "the Western democracies are decadent" and will eventually fall to the "discipline" of the East. Downfall's worldwide popularity may have a lot to do with the way it spoon-feeds.
Still, the film raises a lot of pertinent questions about the meaning of loyalty in a corrupt state. Hitler's inner circle of generals, ministers and their families sits anxiously at his feet, waiting for reassurance that the Russian bombs rattling their underground bunker will soon be cut off by encroaching German troops. There's a twisted kind of honor in the way they pledge to stand by Hitler's side until the end, and sadness in the way Ganz's Hitler insists that he's got a Clausewitz-approved pincer move in store, even as his ashen face tells a different story. For all the forced irony in Downfall, the most chilling moment is subtler, as Hitler quiets the objections of a panicked underling with words that he and his charges know are impossible: "Let's discuss this another time."