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MRQE Top Critic

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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One of the best movies from earlier this year (or the end of last year, depending on where you live), is Downfall. It tells the story of the last days of the Third Reich. Bruno Ganz gives an uncanny performance as Adolf Hitler, just one of the “monsters” of history given flesh and blood in this Oscar-nominated drama.

Inside Hitler’s Bunker

One of the best movies from earlier this year. Commentary is above average, but DVD is overfull.
One of the best movies from earlier this year. Commentary is above average, but DVD is overfull.

Bernd Eichinger adapted his screenplay from the writings of Traudl Junge (rent the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary to see on-camera interviews with her), and Inside Hitler’s Bunker, by author Joachim Fest. The film is two and a half hours long, but it is so engaging that the time zips by.

Several things contribute to the movie’s tight grip. The tension and claustrophobia are the most palpable. Our protagonists are holed up in a concrete bunker in a besieged city. We hear the mortar fire get closer and closer. Our leader’s temper gets shorter and shorter, and the number of loyal hangers-on inside the bunker dwindles.

There are also the well-rounded characters. This is not a movie “about” Adolf Hitler, although he is a central figure. It is a as much about the Goebbels family, Eva Braun, Junge, architect-cum-production-minister Albert Speer, and the half-dozen other prominent characters. The actors bring them all to life; none of the dozen leading characters is allowed to be a caricature.

The interesting question of culpability is raised repeatedly by this German film. To what extent were German citizens responsible for Nazi atrocities? Hitler and Goebbels say that the people gave Hitler a mandate, and they should expect to pay the price when that political capital is spent. Coming from their mouths, it’s a hard argument to swallow, but when Junge says the same thing — that ordinary citizens like her bear some responsibility — it’s hard to dismiss.

Nazis are fascinating characters. Too often, we dismiss them as monsters, ignoring the fact of their humanity and denying the possibility that they could reappear. But really, all it took to make Nazis was the right mix of politics and blind faith. We humans have not evolved enough in the last 60 years to be in the clear. That message is what makes Downfall so chilling.

DVD Extras

The DVD has a manageable number of extra features. The most prominent is a making-of documentary, clearly German in origin, and probably meant for TV. You can tell it was made in Germany because when one subject starts speaking in English, a German translation overdubs the English, requiring English subtitles for the reverse translation.

This documentary is often frustrating because nobody who appears on camera is identified. Some of the subjects, such as Bruno Ganz, are recognizable. But sometimes you can’t tell whether the person speaking is the director, a historian, a producer, or the production designer. I strongly recommend watching the individual interviews before you tackle the feature, if only to associate names with faces.

Some of the individual interviews available on the DVD are better than others. Ganz is interesting, perhaps just because he’s the star and his portrayal of Hitler so impressive. But the interviews with the actresses are exact repeats of what’s in the main documentary. The interview with the author of the book on Traudl Junge is also skippable, particularly if you’ve seen Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary.

The audio commentary, while not scripted or prepared, is better than average. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is more interested in telling us the stories behind the scenes than merely narrating the movie for us. He often avers the authenticity of either an event or a physical detail. Two and a quarter hours of this is a bit too much, but I watched the commentary in two sittings and stayed interested.

Picture and Sound

Two and a half hours of film, plus more than an hour of documentaries, is a lot to fit on one DVD. There are places in the film where you can see digital compression artifacts, usually in scenes with solid gray tones. It was never distracting because the movie is so engaging, but if you are looking for picture quality, you will see the signs of an overcrowded disc.

The sound is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1. The scenes of explosions and gunfire are surprisingly loud (as intended). It is only during these scenes that the surround sound kicks in and fills your living room. Most of the movie’s soundtrack, however, is dialogue. There isn’t even much music in the film. Sound quality is superb all the way through, even if it won’t blow away your neighbors.