Monday, August 2, 2010

Rabbit hole of madness

Seeing Downfall (2004) just a few weeks after seeing Five Minutes of Heaven, and a few months after The Experiment, I am tempted to conclude that director Oliver Hirschbiegel is the master of small, confined spaces. And here is Hitler, who dared to try and conquer half the world, confined to a rabbit warren under Berlin. Yet he shows no surprise or bitterness, just the tired demeanor of an old sick man who knowingly gambled and lost. Doesn't make him any less mad, just not as delusional as one would be tempted to think.

These madmen and women are trying to reassert their perverse versions of everyday human values. Hitler marries as foreplay to the ecstasy of shared suicide. Goebbels' wife kills her magazine-cover lederhosen-clad super-Aryan-children, telling them that poison is medicine, then waiting calmly for her husband to shoot her before shooting himself. Thus are decent people kept decent before the dirty alien hordes arrive. The point is, everyone feels boxed in--despite the fact that they have brought this all down on themselves--and the film reflects that physical and mental claustrophobia superbly. Production information reveals that sets were built without "wild" walls--those are walls which can be removed to accommodate better or wider camera angles. Instead, the bunker was reconstructed exactly and the cameras had to cope with whatever they could.

Tellingly, no other perspective is presented, other than a few soldiers left defending the city who are eventually brought into the world of the bunker. There is no parallel Allied story, or that of ordinary citizens of Berlin. It is all myopia and literally a mile wide. But there is little ranting, other than the impatient squawk of a tired old man. The madness is quiet, and clear-eyed enough to recognize that the reckoning has come. And perhaps that's the most frightening thing. These people were not visibly any madder than people we meet all the time. The young secretary who provides the point of view was an ordinarily decent person, looking for a good government job.

Incidentally, Downfall has become the subject of a YouTube phenomenon, in which footage of Bruno Ganz as Hitler is re-titled to react to some new pop-culture phenomenon. Most of these contain (subtitled) language not appropriate to this website, but the idea is undeniably funny. More suitable for a film blog, here is a StarTrek II/Downfall mashup I enjoyed:

This sort of thing, along with Mel Brooks's The Producers represents our final triumph over Hitler. We no longer tremble at him, monster though he was. Now he is small and ridiculous and silly--the type of thing that would hurt him the most. Would that we had the perspective to the same to Al Queda and similar threats--see them for the pipsqueaks they are.

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