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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

DOWNFALL (article first published : 2005-11-13)

Two fascinating books recalling the last days in the life of one of the most hated men in history provided inspiration for what is, for this reviewer, the most outstanding film so far this year - and the only movie since Sideways to score a 10/10 rating by this reviewer.

The film is Downfall, a superbly acted, mesmerising, often harrowing, drama. It marks the first German film to broach the subject of Adolf Hitler straight-on since G W Pabst's 1956 movie, Der Letste Akt (The Last Act), which was told from the point of view of an ordinary German soldier, played by Oskar Werner.

When Downfall's writer-producer, Bernd Eichinger, read the galleys of historian Joachim Fest's book, Der Untergang (The Downfall: Inside Hitler's Bunker, The Last Days of the Third Reich), he knew he had found the dramatic key to a film he'd wanted to make for decades, but never thought possible due to its scope.

Fest's book focuses on the final days of the German Reich and Eichinger saw that the horrifying epic of Hitler and his people during his 12 years in power was reflected in those last dozen days in the bunker.

Those final days tell us a lot about how the mass fanaticism functioned in the regime's earlier years and how it continued to reign until the bitter end, Eichinger noted.

He read another very important book around the same time: Fest's - the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler's private secretary (Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary) .Fest gave Eichinger the time frame. Junge gave him the character who could hold it all together.

The result is the excellent, Oscar-nominated Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, who made The Experiment. It features a magnificent performance from Bruno Ganz which could have slid into parody but never does. Ganz has perfectly captured Hitler's voice, having studied a seven-minute tape made of Hitler chatting after a dinner party, secretly recorded by a Finnish diplomat and smuggled out of Germany during the war. More importantly, Ganz brings an element of humanity to a man most label as a monster.

Downfall has been criticised by some as "too sympathetic" for showing a tender side to the monster, occasionally seen as almost grandfatherly. However, Ganz's performance and the fine direction never shy from the fact that this was one very disturbed individual - a loathsome and petty sort, prone to ranting tantrums; a man without conscience, who believed death was deserved of those he considered not fit to live.

The slow destruction of Hitler and his loyal followers; Hitler's defiance, then eventual acceptance of defeat; his hysterical outbursts of fear and anger, vitriolic attacks on henchmen he accused of betrayal ... all pull the focus in a riveting drama that also features sidebar stories. These include a small, defiant boy who, still brainwashed, and in spite of living in the ruins of a smouldering Berlin and facing advancing enemy armies, remains true to his leader.

Even more affecting is the side story of the wife of Joseph Goebbels who, rather than raise her children in a new Germany, chooses to drug then poison them. A very harrowing scene.

Downfall is a film the discerning cinema-goer simply has to see! Rating 10/10 Billy Suter




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