by Mark Savlov

It's disconcerting to watch Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Adolf Hitler, which ricochets from moments of quiet introspection to lunatic flights of paranoiac ranting and back again in the dead space between heartbeats. Ganz is perhaps best known to American audiences as Damiel, the lovesick engel who longs to be mortal in Wim Wenders' hauntingly lyrical Wings of Desire, and to see him here as the devil made flesh makes your mind ache and confuses the heart. The confusion, thankfully, cannot persist in the face of Ganz's finely calibrated performance, which, like it or not, is probably the single most accurate Hitler yet committed to film. Ganz is in his mid-60s now, roughly 10 years older than the Fuhrer was when he put a gun to the head of his new bride, Eva Braun (Juliane K & ouml;hler), and then took his own life on April 30, 1945; his Hitler looks haggard and jittery, with palsied hands and stooped shoulders, but it feels right. Watching him, you think, "This must have been how it was."

The Oscar-nominated Downfall (Der Untergang), which chronicles the final days of Hitler's Reich, is set almost entirely inside the claustrophobic command bunker far below the ruined streets of Berlin. It owes much of its creepy verisimilitude to the memories of Hitler's personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), who survived history and was the subject of the excellent and equally disturbing documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary in 2002.

Hirschbiegel's film is less interested in the whys of the Third Reich than in how the assembled leaders and adjutants -- among them Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes); his wife, Magda (Corinna Harfouch); their six children (all blond and blue-eyed and remarkably, horrifically, like the Children of the Damned; and Reich architect Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) -- reacted to their imminent defeat at the hands of the Russian army. While Hitler plots to sway the tide of battle to his favor via phantom storm trooper divisions that either no longer exist or are severely outnumbered, the true believers rally to his side and then, once out of earshot, deride the man as mad and ponder their fates with angst-ridden faces.

Much has been made about the film's "humanizing" of Hitler, but he's only human here in the most prosaic of terms. This shouty little lunatic is more monstrous id than anything remotely resembling a well-balanced military leader, and this renders his sporadic acts of grandfatherly kindness (to his dog Blondi, to his secretary Traudl) all the more frightening.

Ganz's Hitler is a soulless, emotionally bankrupt madman, but it's Matthes' Goebbels who finally lodges in your memory. Skeleton-gaunt and with a piercing gaze, Goebbels is the hellish, unquenchable fire in the belly of the dying beast. His ultimate murderous action, performed along with his wife, is the most disturbing sequence in a film already overflowing with bad mojo; if anything, he out-evils Ganz's ill-tempered and deranged Hitler. It's a performance so dark in its utter absence of morality that it makes everything else pale by comparison. It's all the more powerful because Downfall doesn't concern itself with explanations. Goebbels, like Hitler, was simply evil, indefinable, ultimately unknowable, and thankfully doomed.

Publication date: 04/28/05

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