Of all the topics filmmakers have been reluctant to tackle, one of the biggest of the last 50-odd years has always been the life and death of Adolf Hitler. Though Hitler is undoubtedly one of the most complicated personalities in history, not to mention the subject of enough scholarly works to float a battleship, artists of all stripes have shied away from delving into his mind, possibly for fear of seeming sympathetic to the man or his cause.
With “Downfall,” the new German epic debuting Friday at Market Street Cinema, director Oliver Hischbiegel makes the most expansive cinematic attempt yet at understanding Hitler and the loyalty he inspired. Though the film still manages to leave Hitler and his generals mostly enigmatic, the stories of those in orbit around that group of hard-core believers give us maybe more insight than we’d like about how normal people can become cogs in the machinery of evil.
Though many characters share the spotlight in “Downfall,” it is mostly the story of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), a young secretary recruited at the beginning of World War II to serve as Hitler’s personal secretary. By April 1945, when most of the film’s action takes place, Junge found herself at the center of a scene straight out of Kafka — sequestered with a group of high-level Nazis and their families in Hitler’s hardened bunker below Berlin. With the Red Army advancing into the city and the war all but lost, Hitler (played with superb bouts of ferocity and shell-shocked haze by Bruno Ganz) takes time out from playing with his German shepherd, Blondi, to move decimated divisions around a map he no longer controls, roaring orders about phantom charges and dead generals he wants put to death for cowardice. Meanwhile, Eva Braun (Julianne Kohler) hosts “Great Gatsby” style parties, swing-dancing on top of the piano while the artillery fire hits closer and closer. When it is suggested to Magda Goebbels (Corinna Horfouch) that she and her six cherubic children should make a break for it instead of committing the glorious suicide she plots, she responds, “I’d rather kill my children than have them live in a world without National Socialism” — which, by that point, is about like saying, “I’d rather kill my children than have them live in a world without Santa Claus.” The quiet, motherly scene of her coming to each of her drugged children, slipping the glass ampules of poison into their teeth and then gently pressing their jaws together until we hear the deadly crunch will stay with you long after the theater lights come up.
While not the deep look into the soul of a madman that I had hoped for, “Downfall” does succeed in showing us Hitler’s mind in a kind of shadow play, projected on the people loyal enough to consider dying with him when all seemed lost. In the end, maybe that’s the best way to approach Adolf Hitler in film: to try and understand those who provided the muscle and moral support behind this odd little loser who finally hit it big in politics. In that way, “Downfall” becomes less of a bio-pic and more of a warning: That supporting the monster of Hitler, there was a human scaffold of workaday folks just like you and me. That maybe people are as responsible for what they do by proxy as they are for what they do with forethought and malice.
It’s not pretty to watch — and even less fun to think about in terms of your own life — but it is a powerful lesson nonetheless.
— By David Koon
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” relies as much on dry British wit as the overbudgeted cinema sensationalism of American popcorn flicks, borrowing from Monty Python’s absurdist comedy and decades worth of sci-fi cliches.
When Earth is destroyed by a race of bureaucratic aliens called Vogons to make way for an intergalactic bypass, it ends not so much as it began — with the Big Bang — but with a whimper.
Although the film makes use of grand “Independence Day” special effects, it uses them as mere props, making the ins and outs of the universe less intimidating and more playful.
Based on Douglas Adams’ comedy radio series in 1978, which he later made into a novel, television series, comics and what-have-you, the works of making “Hitchhiker” into a film have been underway for some time. Its release may seem a bit belated to fans of the books, but it arrives at a time when its popularity in the U.S. is still high.
The film is actually a bundle of several of the novel’s stories, which doesn’t exactly make for a coherent plot. It’s not like it much matters anyway though, because the film isn’t exactly concerned with a cohesive narrative, but rather the inventiveness of Adams’ creations to bring the best of them to a larger audience.
The universe does have its central characters, namely Arthur Dent, played by Martin Freeman, also seen on the BBC television series “The Office.” Arthur is no fearless knight of the roundtable. He’s more concerned about getting his afternoon tea than saving the universe.
Others include Arthur’s love interest, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and the president of the universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), as well as a melancholic robot named Marvin, saunteringly voiced by Alan Rickman. All make for a crazy cast of characters set out on an equally improbable, but not impossible, adventure through a bizarre and, for Arthur, educational journey through space and time to discover the meaning of life, existence — and everything else.
Just as the film doesn’t suppose much of itself, though, it doesn’t ask much from the audience, which keeps it just lighthearted enough to bring some genuine laughter and fun into the theater up to the ending credits.
— By Dustin Allen