Tag: Christian Berkel

Downfall (2004)

Bruno Ganz excels as Adolf Hitler in Downfall

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Cast: Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Ulrich Matthes (Joseph Goebbels), Juliane Kohler (Eva Braun), Corinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Heino Ferch (Albert Speer), Christian Berkel (Professor Ernst-Gunther Schenck), Matthias Habich (Professor Werner Haase), Thomas Kretschmann (Hermann Fegelein), Michael Mendl (General Weidling), Andre Hennicke (General Mohnke), Ulrich Noethen (Heinrich Himmler), Birgit Minichmayr (Gerda Christian), Rolf Kanies (General Hans Krebs), Justus von Dohnanyi (General Burgdof)

Few people had such an impact on the 20th century than Adolf Hitler. Countless dictators unleashed genocide and war, but few on Hitler’s scale. His dark presence lingers like a cancer on German history, an existential guilt the country has spent generations trying to exorcise. Chronicling the final days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker, told with cinematic verve and documentary realism, Downfall was the first German film to directly tackle Hitler. Perhaps it needed a German film to present a Hitler who felt real rather than an under-the-bed monster – and was able to look into his darkness, and the horror of his world, in a way few films have ever done.

Downfall was controversial on release for ‘humanising’ Hitler. Certainly, the film shows a man capable of consideration and even moments of warmth. But it’s never in doubt a man can be kind to a secretary or affectionate to a dog and still be a sociopath who greets news of young soldiers dying with the words “that’s what young men are for”. Can still be so wickedly egotistical he decides the entire German population should join him in immolation while manipulating with quiet emotional pressure as many of his followers as possible to join him in suicide. Watching the film, you cannot escape Hitler’s monstrous destructiveness, his complete lack of empathy and his instinctive, brutality.

Much as we might not want to face it, Hitler was human: a ruthless, megalomaniac and genocidal one. Part of the fascination of the film is watching those closest to him – Eva Braun, his secretaries, his immediate staff – try to reconcile the kinder private man they know with the one they hear screaming for his Generals to be shot and ranting about Jews and his desire to annihilate entire populations. At one point Eva Braun tells Junge that when saying those things “he is being the Fuhrer” – as if Hitler and the Fuhrer are some hideous Jekyll/Hyde monster.

Downfall charts the final spiral of Hitler as he goes through the stages of grief at his impending defeat. Self-confidence turns into carpet-chewing anger, when reality becomes unavoidable. Grief mixes with fury as Hitler blames everyone – his Generals, his followers and finally the German people themselves – except himself. Never once does the film offer the slightest shred of sympathy for Hitler, this nightmare being all his own creation, consuming him just as it consumed tens of millions before.

As Hitler, Bruno Ganz is quite simply phenomenal. Studying for months film of Hitler, Ganz captures his physicality perfectly – adding Hitler’s likely (undiagnosed) Parkinson’s, a twitching hand he constantly hides behind his back like a nervous expression of his doubt. In private conversation, Ganz’s Hitler is polite and even a little warm, but never anything less than a monster of self-absorption. His favourite topic is himself, and his quiet expectation that everyone should join him in death is matched only by his cold dismissal of those who fail to live up to his twisted standards.

This is nothing to his furious outbursts at those perceived to have betrayed him. His spittle-fuelled rants perhaps only come close to the true carpet-chewing bawlings Hitler was apparently capable of, but they are tour-de-forces of relentless fury and self-pity. Ganz plays Hitler with empathy, but makes it very clear Hitler was incapable of such an emotion himself. The suffering of others is nothing to him. He sheds tears over the death of his dog and barely bats an eyelid at the deaths of thousands: instead they are a perverse monument to himself.

Nazi Germany is the country he created, and Downfall is exceptional in showing how the last days of the Reich were like the final hours of a cult. Few things display this better than the Goebbels themselves. Ulrich Matthes chilling Goebbels is so consumed with devotion for his leader, weeping when ordered to survive and continue the fight, that he cannot imagine living without him. Like Hitler, his fury is reserved for the German people – to him the German people chose their fate and cannot complain that their throats are now being cut.

This is matched by the devotion of his wife Magda, played with a chilling, twisted sadness by Corinna Harfouch, so devoted to Nazism and Hitler she decides (with the logic of a twisted fanatic) her children should die rather than live in a world without them. In a quietly devastating, almost impossible to watch, scene she feeds them ‘medicine’ (actually a sleeping agent) – her eldest daughter, sensing something is wrong, resists desperately before being force fed – then silently breaks a cyanide capsule in each of their mouths, with a kiss to each forehead. Everyone in the bunker knows this happening, but no one stops her. In this cultish world, where death is normalised and suicide expected, it’s only natural.

The second half of the film is a rash of suicides. A German doctor, his hands filthy with the euthanasia programme, detonates two grenades at a dinner, killing his whole family. The Goebbels shoot themselves and order their bodies cremated in a grim echo of Hitler’s own fate. As survivors plan a breakout, an officer calmly states he’s not leaving and shoots himself in the mouth – no one bats an eyelid. Hitler hands out cyanide capsules like candy, the unspoken expectation constant.

This callous brutality and nihilistic embracing of death is constant during the grim, pointless, desperate battle for the city. Indoctrinated children are press ganged into the front-lines and then choose suicide over surrender. Lynch mobs prowl the streets, executing anyone not seen to be fighting – mostly old men, disabled veterans and anyone not holding a gun. The film never suggests the German people are victims, but suggests the final target of the Nazis was Germany itself.

The film is a long spiral into an anti-chamber of hell. After the opening half hour, the Russian advance means the action retreats almost entirely underground into the bunker. In this subterranean world, the cast slowly thins out as people seize their chance to flee, leaving only the most deluded, hard-boiled and fanatical. Generals may protest Hitler’s denunciations of the ordinary soldiers, but will pull their guns on anyone who even suggests the idea of surrender.

In a country where Hitler has encouraged a denial of reality, the scheming and jockeying for position continues even in this madness. Even those who see the end is here are still deluded: Himmler firmly believes a brief chat with Eisenhower will be enough for the SS to be entrusted with maintaining the peace against Bolshevism. Only Speer (played perhaps with too much sympathy by Heino Ferch, in the film’s one mis-step) is clear eyed about what is happening.

Downfall is relentless and eye-opening in destruction of the final days of the Reich. Its reconstruction and research is faultless and acting breathtaking. Framing the device through the experiences of naïve secretary Traudl Junge (an excellent Alexandra Maria Lara), we get a sense of how the scales slowly and painfully fell from the eyes of the German people. It’s atmosphere of oppressive claustrophobia and bleakness is expertly done, with events swiftly and awfully spiralling down into one where death becomes an unremarkable inevitability. No one could come out of this either admiring Hitler or seeing anything in Nazism other than a twisted cult that consumed its followers with the same blood-curdling carelessness it did its millions of victims. Hitler may have been a human, but Downfall makes clear he was never humane.

Trumbo (2015)

Bryan Cranston is the put-upon idealist Trumbo under the scornful eye of Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Cast: Bryan Cranston (Dalton Trumbo), Diane Lane (Cleo Trumbo), Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper), Louis CK (Arlen Hird), Elle Fanning (Nikola Trumbo), John Goodman (Frank King), Michael Stuhlbarg (Edward G Robinson), Alan Tudyk (Ian McLellan Hunter), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Virgil Brooks), Dean O’Gorman (Kirk Douglas), Stephen Root (Hymie King), Roger Bart (Buddy Ross), David James Elliott (John Wayne), Christian Berkel (Otto Preminger)

Hollywood loves to make movies about itself. It particularly loves to make movies where Hollywood is seen to be working on a higher moral plane. Trumbo is a film about the Hollywood Ten – the ten major screenwriters, directors and actors in Hollywood whom the industry blacklisted in the 1940s because of their sympathy for communism. Their leading light was Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a rich screenwriter who finds himself imprisoned and unemployable. Trumbo encourages the writers to group together and write under pseudonyms for cheap film studios – although the right-wing in Hollywood continues to persecute them. Trumbo cannot reveal his identity as a writer – even after winning two Oscars – until 1960 when Kirk Douglas gives him a credit for Spartacus.

Trumbo is a very earnest, straightforward and rather bland re-tread of a key moment in Hollywood. It’s made with very little imagination, and remixes the world of 1940s politics into something that bears more resemblance to the political situation now than it does to the time. That’s not to defend the House Committee on Un American Activities (HUAC), the Congress Committee that led the campaign against communist subversion in Hollywood. Their persecution of communists flew in the face of American ideals of free speech, and their ruin of the lives of innumerable actors, writers and directors not found to be ideological pure is appalling.

But this is a film that simplifies its politics into a world of good and bad. It also works hard to try and whitewash Hollywood. Watch this film and you would believe it was Congress that had worked overtime in order to ban certain Hollywood creatives from working. Not so: the black list was put forward by the movie studios themselves and endorsed by the various guilds. Famous actors and directors, such as Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, furiously dropped their support for the Hollywood Ten after feeling they had been deceived by the Ten about their Communist associations. The film mentions none of this of course, running with a Hollywood-vs-Congress story line and crowbarring in people like McCarthy and Nixon who had very little to do with HUAC.

The main Hollywood figures campaigning against the Black List are either faceless Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals types, or lip-smacking, practically mustachio-twirling gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played with ludicrous OTT camp wickedness by Helen Mirren). John Wayne is the only recognisable Hollywood “legend” shown on the side of these guys – and, while he does get mocked for his non-war-record early on by Trumbo, he is quickly shown to be a moderate pushing for forgiveness for those who repent (and is noticeably absent from the villainy of the organisation later in the film) – Hollywood doesn’t want to be too harsh on one of its own.

Roach’s political simplicity also affects the actors who found themselves in an impossible position. As Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G Robinson points out, writers can work under a pseudonym, actors can’t. I was reminded of when Elia Kazan won an honorary Oscar and several famous Hollywood actors refused to applaud him, as Kazan had “named names” (or rather confirmed names HUAC already knew) when pulled before the committee. Robinson here is rammed into the same position, denounced as a snitch and a traitor for confirming the names of the Hollywood Ten when many of them are already in prison. As at the Oscars, I’m not sure it’s our place to judge. It’s cosy to assume “I would have told them no” but who can say if we would have or not? And can we really judge those who decided they didn’t want to go to the wall for a communist cause they didn’t believe in (as Kazan and Robinson didn’t, being more left-wing sympathisers than Stalinists like Trumbo)?

It’s another part of the film’s simplicity that Communism is not of course interrogated any further. Watch this film and the political views of Trumbo and his colleagues come across as nothing more than a more idealistic version of Obama-ism. In reality, Trumbo was a Stalinist who pushed for non-intervention in World War II until Russia was attacked by Hitler. This is not mentioned or explored in the film at all. In fact, the complexity of these idealists climbing into bed with a regime soaked red with blood that was suppressing freedom across large chunks of the globe isn’t even raised. Roach wants to tell a story about good-old-fashioned-Hollywood-democrats being persecuted by nasty right-wingers.

Away from the film’s simplicity it’s nothing special. Roach does competent work and there is the odd good scene. Trumbo himself is basically a rather selfish arsehole, who judges everyone around him and frequently ignores his put-upon family. Cranston does a decent job as Trumbo – but you can’t help but feel his generous Oscar nomination was in part a recognition for his work on Breaking Bad. Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel get some of the best scenes as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger working with Trumbo on Spartacus and Exodus. Bizarrely, the film totally avoids diving into the themes of Spartacus– or exploring what Trumbo was thinking about when he wrote “I’m Spartacus”, that paen to unity from the pen of a man abandoned by everyone, surely a hugely personal line not in the original source material – and instead skirts only on the surface, ticking off events. It kinda sums the film up: a solid enough to watch, but basically forgettable, that never engages with the inner lives of the men it claims to understand.

The Man From UNCLE (2015)

Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill try, and fail, to get some zing out of The Man From UNCLE

Director: Guy Richie

Cast: Henry Cavill (Napoleon Solo), Armie Hammer (Ilya Kuryakin), Alicia Vikander (Gaby Teller), Elizabeth Debicki (Victoria Vinciguerra), Jared Harris (Adrian Sanders), Hugh Grant (Alexander Waverly), Luca Calvani (Alexander Vinciguerra), Sylvester Groth (Uncle Rudi), Christian Berkel (Udo Teller), Misha Kuznetsov (Oleg)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.was a 1960s TV spy caper series, which I confess I’ve never seen an episode of but I’m reliably told (by my wife who has) that it’s all larks and fun. This Guy Ritchie remake, on the other hand, is a tonal mess that has no idea what the hell it is. Only Hugh Grant gets anywhere near to appearing in a caper movie – probably because he’s virtually the only member of the cast who might have grown up watching the original series.

Anyway, in the early 1960s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is an international master-thief turned CIA agent (this suggests his character is a whole lot more fun than he actually is). Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB super-agent, dealing with issues of psychosis (yup more fun to be had there). This odd couple are ordered to team up and work with car mechanic (no seriously) Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father is working with renegade Italian fascists, led by femme fatale Victoria Viniciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), to build a new nuclear mastery over the world. Or something.

It should be a ridiculous, overblown, mix of Bond and high 60s camp. Instead it’s dreary, chemistry-free, largely uninvolving sub-Mission: Impossible high jinks that I’m not ashamed to say I dozed off during at one point. Would that I had slept through more of it. It’s quite damning when the most enjoyable thing about it is thinking about the accent Olympics going on (we have a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian, a Swede playing a German, an Australian playing an Italian, an Irishman playing an American…).

No matter which way the three leads are arranged, Cavill, Vikander and Hammer have no chemistry at all in any combination. There is precisely zero bromance between the two leads. Vikander and Hammer have a will-they-won’t-they romance that comes from absolutely nowhere and leads nowhere (set up for sequels that will never come). Cavill looks the part, but completely lacks the cheeky, self-confident, “I’m-enjoying-all-this” charm that the part requires – instead he’s flat and boring. Hammer has more of the winking-at-the-camera cool, but he’s saddled with a part that frequently requires him to burst out in hotel-room-trashing outbursts of anger. Vikander just looks a bit bored with the whole thing.

These rather joyless characters go through a series of action set pieces, none of which got my pulse racing, and all of which felt like off cuts from a lousy Mission: Impossible sequel. Car chases, fisticuffs, gun fights, explosions, boat chases – they all tick by with no wit or pleasure involved anywhere. In these sort of things, you need to feel the characters are such adrenaline junkies that they sorta enjoy the crazy antics they get thrown into – you don’t get any of that from these three.

Much as I like Elizabeth Debicki, she can do little with her underwritten part – I mean I get that the plot isn’t the main thing in a film like this, but they could have at least given our villain a character. Instead she is as cardboard cut-out as the rest of the storyline. The acting from the bulk of the cast is also really odd – some seem aware they are in a tongue-in-cheek spy film, others seem to think they are in an espionage thriller. It’s a mess. There are scenes of pratfall comedy followed by grim scenes of torture and violence. In one juddering moment of this spy romp, the flipping Holocaust is dragged in as a shorthand for identifying a character as an “ultimate villain” – which given he had our hero strapped to a chair and was about to torture him, I think we could all have worked out without exploiting genocide. Anyone else think pulling this appalling real world event (with photos!) into a stupid caper movie is really tasteless? Did no one watch this thing while it was being edited?

I will say the design is pretty good and it’s well shot. But compare this to the fun and games of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (which this is obviously trying to emulate) and the total lack of chemistry at its heart becomes immediately clear. Hugh Grant is a complete relief when he turns up as he’s the only actor who actually looks like he is enjoying his part and wants to be there. It was a big box office bomb and it’s no surprise. No one is having fun, the spirit of the original series seems to have been completely lost, and the lead actors totally fail to bring the leading-man pizzazz the film needs. Perfect if you want a nap.