Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why is Downfall Great?

Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2004 account of the last days of the Third Reich does not begin in April of 1945. Instead, the movie opens with a simple documentary head-shot of an aging woman who wonders about some unnamed woman. Her narrative ends with the simple phrase "I could have said no." Similarly, the movie does not end with the death of Adolf Hitler, nor the victorious arrival of Russian troops, but with the same woman: "It was no excuse to be young and it would have been possible to find things out." This is Traudl Junge, the real Traudl, secretary to Adolf Hitler.

Bookended with this documentary footage, Downfall (Der Untergang) is a triumph of historical filmmaking, combining the art and ontology of the cinematic medium with a courageously incomplete testimony. The film is foremost an example of historiophoty at its best, combining the inherent realism of cinema with the ambiguities of any artistic endeavor, finding a synergy between these two antithetical poles. There are no camera tricks or open acknowledgments of artificiality; on one level, the movie adheres closely to the precepts of realism that most audiences have come to expect - especially of historical reconstructions. However, there are a few artful touches, ones that are most frequently heart-wrenchingly underplayed: a defenestrated dolls, a letter montage, a series of vanity tableaux, the slowly-emptying bunker. These moments of overt artfulness contrast with a painstaking physical and, most importantly, psychological , realism. None the personages are caricatured, no matter how brutally absurd they may seem to our post-modern sensibilities.

This abstention from judgment is the second part of Downfall's triumph: an incomplete testimony. Most narratives, even historical reconstructions based on personal experience, are complete - they seek to label, categorize and understand past contexts and actions. It's not surprising; this is the essence of psychological closure. Nonetheless, the bravest of historical reconstructions understand that somethings cannot be understood no matter how thoroughly we explore them or how carefully we may articulate the circumstances.

Traudl Junge, a 22 year-old woman, is our effective protagonist. Nonetheless, she is a difficult entity to characterize: naive but sympathetic, uncertain, in state of continual shell-shock, yet never so removed from reality that we feel an identifiable distance from her. Like in a third-person limited narration, we see most of the world over her should, through her affect, even when not literally at her side: Hitler at turns psychotic and charming, harsh and then frail, the infectious gaiety of Eva Braun that belies her dangerous insouciance, the desperate bickering of Nazi generals, the disturbingly frank talk of suicide that is as ubiquitous as unending bottles of alcohol.

As hinted above, Downfall is often a study in contrasts: pristine ideology (Magda Goebbels) versus brutal reality (the Hitler Youth stand-in, Peter). Yet despite intense moments of barbarity, it never seeks to explain, only to witness, to bear testimony of what was, mostly Junge's testimony. The film has the courage not to tidily box things up with labels like "insanity" or "innocence," but rather only to question with needing pat answers. Rather than point to past events and then carefully explicate them, Downfall only underlines them and lets the spectator comes to his own conclusions - no small task, but one to which we may take with the courageous skepticism that Traudl eventually learned: to find things out on our own.

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