Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004)

Der Untergang aka The Downfall is one of the very best war movies I have ever seen. It’s fascinating, chilling and marvelously well acted. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gives one of the best Hitler performances I’ve ever seen and this despite the fact that he did at first not want to play the part. If you are familiar with Bruno Ganz you know that this accomplished and gentle actor usually plays very different roles.

The idea to focus on the very last months of Hitler’s life was very well-chosen and to open and finish the movie with the testimony of one of those who were in the bunker with him until his death, gave it an another dimension and explored something that I have never forgotten since I first saw this movie. Traudl Junge was 22 when she was hired to work as the Führer’s personal secretary and went to live with him and his staff in the bunker in Berlin. The whole time while the situation went from serious to hopeless, while the Russians were advancing in the East and the Americans and the other allies in the West, she stayed with Hitler, his wife, the Goebbels and many others in this sinister place. In the opening sequence and the closing part, the real Traudl Junge, meanwhile an old woman, says that she cannot forgive herself for not seeing it. She wasn’t any younger than Sophie Scholl, who died at 22 fighting the Nazis. Youth is no excuse, she says. Others saw it, she didn’t. Including her also underlined the historical accuracy of the movie.

In these final months when most of his generals and officers already knew that the war was lost and that the Russians would take Berlin, Hitler still tried to convince himself that they would still win. At the same time he carefully prepared his and his wife’s suicide, making sure that their bodies wouldn’t fall into the hand’s of the Russians. That Hitler was mad is undeniable but in these final months even the most hardened followers started to realize that he had some serious and fatal issues. He went from one outburst to the next, raging and roaring and putting everyone ill at ease. Some  of the people around him tried to tell him that all was lost but he didn’t listen. Some, like Hitler, still believed the war could be won and others who knew better still stood by his side as they had sworn allegiance. These were the ones who would never leave him. The number of suicides that followed Hitler’s suicide and the German capitulation is amazing.

Although I had seen The Downfall  before there were a lot of details I had forgotten. For example the fact that Hitler didn’t care what was happening to the German people. In his reactions to the generals and officers who were pleading to save the German people one could really see the extent of the madness of this man.

I had also forgotten how intense the fighting was in the city of Berlin and how on the side of the Germans everyone was fighting, even children.

The most chilling part is played by Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels. The wife of Joseph Goebbels and mother of seven children was the exemplary German wife and mother. A fervent Nazi and believer in Nazi ideology she not only decided to follow her husband in his suicide but she took all of her children with her, killing each one of them with her own hands.

If you haven’t seen this movie already, you should really watch it. It’s fantastic and you will be able to see most of the great German actors in outstanding performances.

The Downfall is one of the movies on my list of  10 German War Movies You Must See Before You Die

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Der Baader Meinhof Komplex aka The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

The Baader Meinhof Complex is another movie on the border between war and terrorism. It takes a close look at Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF) or Rote Armee Fraktion, one of the earliest terrorist groups that made terrorism their profession. They were responsible for robbings, killings, kidnappings in the late 60s and early 70s. What the movie doesn’t show is the fact that there were different waves. The Baader Meinhof group was the first wave of the RAF. Their initial aim was never to kill people but once that started and got out of hands, more radical groups followed, like the one led by Brigitte Mohnhaupt (portrayed by Nadja Uhl) also called Deutscher Herbst (German Autumn).

Not everything is as it should be in Germany in the 1970s. The children of the Nazi generation are afraid that nothing has changed in Germany. Many of the old National Socialist party got away and are in prominent positions in the government. A group around the enigmatic figures of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and Gudrun Ensslin (Martina Wokalek) are fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of fascism: American imperialism supported by the German establishment.

At first they bomb empty buildings, but get more and more violent in the process. One of their two main enemies are the Axel Springer Verlag and the American bases in Germany. They try to fight the war in Vietnam and bomb an American base which costs the lives of soldiers.

The ideas behind their doings were far from wrong. They wanted to build a new society where there was no room for fascism and totalitarianism. Despite the violence, the support in the German population was huge and the whole nation followed how they were hunted down and captured.

Once the heads were arrested they were isolated and held under inhumane conditions which they fought. But even inside of prison, they still organized terrorist acts  and their collective suicide must be seen as a last attempt to right the wrong.

The Baader Meinhof group is highly interesting. This was the birth of terrorism. Nothing like this has been seen before. They went to training camps in Jordan and fought together with the Palestinians against Israel that was considered to be an enemy like the US.

These were not mindless people, they were students and intellectuals, Ulrike Meinhof was a well-known journalist.

Although I cannot approve of their methods, there were too many killings and kidnappings, I can’t help thinking that they changed the fate of Germany for the good. The German society after WWII was still highly infected by Nazism. Many Nazis got away and played important roles in Germany. The Baader-Meinhof did denounce and unmask this. Without them, who knows what Germany would look like today?

The cast of this movie is excellent. The hunted are well chose and so are the hunters. The head of the police force is played by Bruno GanzHeino Ferch stars as his assistant.

The heads of the first wave all died. Meinhof, Ensslin, Baader and Raspe committed suicide in prison. It was rumoured that it was murder but nothing could ever be proven.

The second wave, among them Brigitte Mohnhaupt, left prison a while back (2007), after 25 years of incarceration.

10 German War Movies You Must See Before You Die

In the last years Germany has made quite a few very good war movies but there are also some older ones that have stood the test of time. I am sure I have forgotten some and left out many that are co-productions with the exception of Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas because it is one of my Top 10. I will very probably mention it again when I will make a post on 10 French war movies you must see before you die.

Let´s stick to Germany for the time being.

Die Brücke aka The Bridge (1959): WWII, Germany. One of the best anti-war films ever. Shows how senseless some orders are. Young people fight for a bridge although the war can´t be won anymore. It is one of the movies on my list Children in War Movies.

Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben aka Dogs, do you want to live forever – Stalingrad (1959): WWII, Russia. A German classic. A grim look at the battle in Stalingrad.

Das Boot (1981): THE U-Boot movie. Conveys brilliantly what it is like to be helpless under water. Claustrophobic feel. Superb acting. Marvellous cast. Especially noteworthy the singer Herbert Grönemeyer.

Stalingrad (1993): WWII, grim infantry combat. German POV. One of the best war movies  ever, one of my Top 10 as well. The setting, the character portraits, the acting, the combat, the snow, the cold, the despair. A fabulous movie that gives an insight in one of the worst chapters of WWII. Another marvellous cast. Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Resident Evil, The Downfall, The Young Victoria) is in it. He is one of those German actors that are known far beyond Germany and Europe. (see my post on Stalingrad)

NaPolA aka Before the Fall (2004): WWII, Germany. Interesting look at the Hitler Youth. How they recruited their elite, how they brainwashed them. Poisonous Pedagogy. See my review for more details. This movie is also on the Children in War Movies list.

Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004): WWII, Berlin. The final days of Hitler. Astonishing acting from the very great Bruno Ganz. A fascinating portrait. Eerie. Creepy.  An outstanding movie and a must see even for those who don’t watch war movies. (see my post on The Downfall)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI, France. Especially noteworthy as it is about WWI. The movie depicts the so-called “Little peace”. It is Christmas and something strange is happening. The war stands still. The enemy soldiers prefer football over fighting and get to know and like each other. Based on a true story. You get a good feel for the differences of the trenches and the characteristics of the parties involved.

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage aka Sophie Scholl (2005): WWII, Germany. German Resistance. One of the leaders of The White Rose, Sophie Scholl´s final days. I have hardly ever seen a movie like this. After watching it I did solemnly swear to become a better person (I am not too successful yet. It is an ongoing process. A work in progress). No, honestly, this woman or girl´s guts… So much selfless idealism and courage. I was awed.

Anonyma – Eine Frau n Berlin aka Anonyma – The Downfall of Berlin (2008) : WWII, Berlin. One of the movies I reviewed recently. I included it as it tackles a lesser known and very painful subject. The mass rape of German women by the Red Army. See my post of Anonyma.

Der rote Baron aka The Red Baron (2008): WWI, Germany. The romanticized story of Baron von Richthofen the famous German fighter pilot. Beautifully filmed, good-looking cast, very intense air combat. See my post of the Red Baron.

Any movies you would add?

As I think Sophie Scholl is not known enough I added the trailer for you.

Obnoxious and Unlikable War Movie Characters

I was thinking today, why shouldn´t  I write a post on the war movie characters I hate most? Obviously I am not talking bad acting here. On the very contrary, it is maybe more difficult to play a truly unlikable and obnoxious character. A true bully or a monster like Hitler. Bruno Ganz who stars as Hitler in The Downfall aka Der Untergang apparently refused the role at first whereas I believe I remember having read, Anthony Hopkins found his role in The Bunker to be particularly challenging and he did enjoy such a challenge.

But apart from  extreme  evil historical people like Hitler, there are numerous mean characters populating war movies. The list I made are those that came to my mind easily, those I will never forget, no matter how many years have passed since I last saw the movie. Often those really evil people are paired with good ones like in Platoon, Casualties of War and Cross of Iron.

Here´s my list of war movie impersonations of meanness or just plain unlikable geeks.

Gny. Sgt Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket. THE Boot Camp Devil.

Herbert M. Sobel (David Schwimmer) in Band of Brothers. Mean and dumb.

Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) in Platoon. How evil and sadistic can you possibly be?

Lt. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) in The Blue Max. Over ambitious with and inferiority complex. An annoyingly obnoxious arriviste.

Cpt Hauptmann Stransky (Maximilian Schell) in Cross of Iron. A conceited, arrogant upper-class Prussian officer.

Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) in Casualties of War. An abusive rapist.

Lance Cpl Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush) in Generation Kill. Total lack of feeling, an empty shell.

I am not sure which one I consider to be the worst. I guess either Sgt. Barnes or Hauptmann Stransky.

I am sure the world of war movies contains many more bad people than those I just mentioned. Who is your most hated character?