Thursday, September 01, 2005

Going Down with Der Untergang

Der Untergang, or Downfall, as it is expressed in its English translation, is one of the finest films to come along in the past decade and will likely be hailed as a masterpiece for years to come. It is the unflinching portrayal of the final days in the life of Adolf Hitler along with his cabinet members and military associates during their retreat into the infamous bunker during the fall of Berlin in 1945. Downfall accesses a wealth of historical data to bring this dark moment of 20th century history to light, and a knowledge of this history would allow viewers to better understand the subplots and political intrigue (which are clarified on repeat viewings). The German/Italian/Austrian co-production sports an outstanding supporting cast led by Bruno Ganz in one of the finest performances of his acclaimed career.

The airtight direction is among one of many things to marvel; there doesn't seem to be a single moment of wasted film in Downfall's running time of 156 minutes. The excellent script utilizes the enormous cast extremely well, as Hitler's associates scramble to determine their own allegiance to Der Fuhrer and the allegiance of others around them. This allows for a continually shifting web of psychological intrigue and the director uses it to sustain a high level of suspense throughout. All the supporting actors turn in great performances; it is difficult to recall an ensemble that functions so well together. The casting and art direction are flawless; the authenticity draws viewers into the work and holds them in awe.

Director Oliver Hirschbeigel's intention was to make the figure of Adolf Hitler and some of his more sinister associates play as human as possible. Previous filmic efforts have taken a different road by portraying the Fuhrer as a rabid dog or senseless lunatic. But in this case the power comes from the understanding that these people, capable of so much bloodshed and destruction, were ultimately mere human beings. This perspective gives Downfall an added emotional weight that pushes the narrative beyond normal definitions of tragedy due to the horrible ramifications of the Nazi Party's agenda.

The path of Hitler's decline is nicely counterpointed with the character of his secretary, Traudl Junge, deftly portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara. From the moment she is hired at the onset of the film to the final scenes of her escape from the bunker, she is both sympathetic and suspect. The real-life image and words of Frau Junge is presented at the beginning and end of the film, as she muses on the multi-layered levels of responsibility for the action of the Nazi Party she may have accepted or overlooked.

The film achieves its greatest intensity as viewers watch the internal military mechanisms of the Third Reich disintegrate as the Russians approach Berlin while Hitler's sanity really begins to fail. The scenes where Ganz is ordering his generals to shift troops (who have already perished on the battlefield) to support other failing units create moments of tremendous tension. There is great detail to many aspects of the fall of Berlin, and all are tracked in a way that never allows the pace to slacken.

Downfall examines aparallelparalel character in Eva Braun (played by Julianne Kohler), who went to great lengths to keep those around her from stepping away from their loyalty to Der Fuhrer. Corinna Harfouch and Ulrich Matthes merge with the roles of Madga and Joseph Goebbels, and their performances could be considered among the finest in the past decade of moviemaking. Their final descent brings about some of the most terrible acts of tragedy.

Der Untergang is a masterpiece of cinema that reveals a dark page of our not too distant history. Without ever nodding to present political situations, it reveals the danger of having so much power resting in the hands of so few individuals. Downfall is an important film on many levels and viewers will find that repeated viewings only help to appreciate the immense effort involved by this impressive director and his cast and crew to bring this powerful story to fruition.

Pretty Persuasion Isn't Pretty (but see it anyway!)

Pretty Persuasion is a film that is sure to invite controversy. The plot, if you haven’t already heard, is about a highly intelligent high school girl that convinces two friends to assist in bringing sexual harassment charges against their English/drama teacher in order to achieve fame and media popularity. While the film’s influences and plot devices show their seams from time to time, director Marcos Siega avoids common Hollywood fluff by pushing Persuasion’s satirical humor into the darker recesses of the American Psyche. Previous efforts like Heathers, Election, Mean Girls, or To Die For, lead the pack of said influences, and yet Pretty Persuasion nudges its way past most audiences’ comfort zones into deeper territories of racism, class issues, and over-zealous desire for notoriety, urging the narrative to its natural conclusion - a pandora's box laden with tragedy.

The real gem of the film is Evan Rachel Wood, whose performance is near-perfect. Her few minor stumbles seem more the fault of direction than of her instincts and delivery. Her ability to hold the darkly satirical line of humor while keeping the audience emotionally engaged and sympathetic to her plight (however ill-advised) is no small feat. While Pretty Persuasion is not a perfect film, its highest merits belong to Ms. Wood and the director’s use of art direction to counterpoint the emotional climaxes of the film. It also features a narrative structure that moves back and forth in time but in this case, unlike so many other recent films that suffer from more the "more device than substance syndrome", Pretty Persuasion uses these devices with self-mocking humor and the effects heighten the suspense and mystery of the story. The film has fairly strong and consistent direction throughout, with momentary lapses into a banal vulgarity, pushed over the top in those moments by James Woods, who plays the father of the movie's anti-heroine.

This might be one of the better independent films out there at the moment, and if you’re on the fence about seeing it in the theater, it should be high on your list of rentals later this fall.