Archive for January, 2012

I Just Sold A Novel

Posted: January 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

I’ve always wanted to make one of these videos.  Enjoy.

http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/12947212/i-just-sold-a-novel

There’s No Need To Atone

Posted: January 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

I just read an internet comment by someone who wanted to know whether a certain artist with decades of work behind him will be able to “atone” for a somewhat disappointing work from 2011.

Never mind whether it was a writer, a musician, or a moviemaker. It’s a name you’ve all heard of, and the only reason I don’t provide it here is that I don’t want my point sullied by specific arguments over this guy’s work. Insert your own big name.

The answer to the commenter is: you’re a real asshole.

It’s not about atoning. This artist committed no sin. Every work is its own separate nation. Artists try different things and sometimes fail; they sometimes achieve things far beyond their usual level and struggle in vain to achieve them again. They sometimes hit those heights again, and sometimes don’t.
This particular artist has masterpieces in his past. This time out he tried something ambitious, more driven by personal vision than formula or the marketplace, and did not achieve greatness — but he tried, and didn’t make an absolute fool of himself; he simply disappointed you.

In trying for masterpieces at an age when others would coast, in not quite achieving one this time out, the artist in question does not deserve the same level of scorn as those with aspirations no greater than the gutter, who either deliberately produce garbage because they think that it’s what the audience wants, or were raised on garbage and honestly cannot tell the difference. Ask yourself: how many forgettable and disposable works were there, in 2011, that had no ambitions beyond distracting us for five minutes? The very least you can say, looking at this artist’s not-quite-failure from 2011, is that he didn’t pitch a lowball. He went for distance. And claiming that he needs to “atone” doesn’t just insult him; it insults the artistic impulse itself.


 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson.  152 minutes. ***

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011).  Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Spoiler warnings should go without saying by now, given that this blog earns its bones by contrasting plot minutiae of multiple movies based on the same source material. But a word to the wise is particularly apt here. These films are procedural mysteries, hinging on buried secrets, horrible revelations, unexpected reversals and horrific crimes against women. If you haven’t read the best-seller by author Stieg Larsson…if you haven’t seen either movie adaptation, but plan to indulge in the future and do not wish exposure to surprises, then this current sentence is the place to stop. So stop. Do not come after us with wrath in mind, especially not if you’re an unstable girl with a vengeful streak and a tattoo needle. Be apprised that it’s more or less impossible to compose intelligent commentary about the first installment of this particular franchise without delving, at least briefly, into the sequels, which are also set up here. We won’t be discussing those in nearly the same level of detail, but, again, if you haven’t indulged and wish a radio blackout, you won’t find it on this blog. If you prefer another topic, either go elsewhere or check out this handy-dandy index of all the other fun stuff we’ve talked about in our first year. We promise, we won’t be upset.

Clear on that?

Fine.

So here’s where we stand. Both these movies are based on a worldwide publishing phenomenon, a trilogy of Swedish novels centered on the tangled backstory of one Lisbeth Salander, a troubled girl whose past includes abuse, wrongful imprisonment, cover-ups at the highest levels of government, rape by authority figures, and her own barely repressed rage. She is a dangerous, asocial genius, suspicious but not incapable of friendship or loyalty. She is almost impossible to fully know but possesses such a knack for inspiring reckless loyalty in those who care about her that, by installment #3, the conspiracy of friends intent on saving her from a government  intent on destroying her oddly seems to outnumber the number of people actively involved in that conspiracy. She is a brilliant computer hacker, a talented thief, and a tough fighter, in addition to being a mathematical prodigy and the secretive user of a totally photographic memory.  She is physically petite, aggressively sexual, a chain-smoker, and defiantly off-putting. Some people, like critic Roger Ebert, have ventured that she might have Asperger’s Syndrome, but that’s not a diagnosis we concur with; she may be anti-social, but she’s too good at reading people for that to be a sensible label for her. Let’s just say that she has good reason to distrust people and to keep the number in her inner circle to an absolute minimum.

All three novels also feature one Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing journalist recently convicted of libel. Blomkvist, a clear stand-in for author Stieg Larsson. Larsson was also a crusading journalist, well-known in Sweden for his exposes of white supremacist groups, and the recipient of one of life’s great terrible breaks when he wrote these novels and died in his early forties before any of them were published, thus doomed to never sit on a airplane, anywhere, and see that one person in four was reading one. He incorporated many elements of his own personality, at least as he saw it, into Blomkvist, which may be one reason why even readers who adore Lisbeth find his character too much to take, in that he’s always juggling several women simultaneously and here breaks through the reserve of a hot, moody chick half his age while also maintaining an active, long-standing affair with another woman whose husband honestly doesn’t mind. 

(Characters who exist as authorial self-flattery are not exactly unknown in fiction – the writer M. Night Shyamalan played in Lady In The Water  was easy to peg as his own –  but it took Star Trek fandom to label them properly; they’re Mary Sues. Mary Sue is the young ensign identical to the author who shows up on the Enterprise bridge, is instantly beloved by all the featured players, has affairs with a number of them and is soon acclaimed as an invaluable member of the crew. Mary Sues are wish-fulfillment, to an often embarrassing degree. They can be uncomfortably self-revelatory when they appear in fan-fiction and downright appalling when they appear in professional prose. Blomkvist can be as hard to take as any, and it needs to be said that Larsson seems to have written all three books believing that he was the star attraction, not quite realizing the degree to which Lisbeth should have been; she spends much of Book Three confined to a hospital while Blomkvist and company race about trying to clear her of murder charges. If there’s anything that the scenarists of both the 2009 and 2011 films seemed to have realized right off is that the obsessive recounting of all the women the man gets to fuck – who include even Harriet Vanger, the girl whose supposed murder and subsequent discovery in hiding are the basis of Dragon Tattoo –  really did need to be brought within bearable dimensions or we’ll hate him.)

In any event, the best of the three novels is the one that only hints at Salander’s full backstory and involves her and Blomkvist in a more-or-less self-contained adventure. (Books 2 and 3, and the swedish films based on same, are really one long, convoluted narrative.) Salander and Blomkvist travel different paths that don’t converge until they meet for the first time at the halfway point.

The recently-disgraced Blomkvist accepts a job offer from retired elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger, to investigate the forty-year-old disappearance and apparent murder of one of the only members of his nasty extended family that he doesn’t despise with cause: niece Harriet,who vanished without a trace during a family gathering.    (The rest of the family, with only a few exceptions, is a nasty collection of ex-Nazis, drunks, crazy people, and assorted cads; any of them could have taken Harriet just out of spite.)

As Blomkvist gradually puts together clues establishing a connection between Harriet’s disappearance and a heretofore-unsuspected series of serial killings going back decades, Salander finds herself contending with a nasty new legal guardian, Nils Bjurman, who sees in the legally-but-far-from-actually incompetent Salander a girl he can blackmail for sexual favors.  He even rapes her, which turns out to be a colossally bad move on his part; she not only captures the crime on video, thus providing herself with blackmail material of her very own, but chains him up, sexually violates him,  and marks him forever with a chest tattoo declaring him a sadistic pig and a rapist.
  
Blomkvist and Salander meet, team up, and go after the serial killer together.

It turns out to be Henrik’s nephew and Harriet’s brother, Martin, picking up a vile trade he learned from his father; Harriet, it turns out, is still alive, having fled the madness and abuse of her family.

That’s the basic outline, but the novel is so complex, with so many twisted relationships and so much backstory – not to mention a couple of choice sexual affairs for Blomkvist before Salander decides she wants to make recreational use of him – that the respective screenplay writers had free choice of what plot elements to keep, and what plot elements to discard. (Strictly speaking, the newer of the two films is clearly less a remake of the first, than another approach to the source material.) It is instructive, therefore to note the choices they made and which ones worked better.

One note: the Swedish films were actually edited-down versions of a television miniseries, unseen by us. It is therefore inevitable that the streamlining decisions we reference with regard to the 2009 film, exceed whatever decisions were made for the somewhat more inclusive TV version. Fine. We are only talking, here, about the 2009 theatrical release. And on, at long last, we go.

Noomi

The Casting And The Dramatization of the Central Relationship

Both films feature quality performances in their galaxy of supporting roles, and it would of course be very possible to fill an article longer than even this one with extensive comparisons on a case-by-case basis; we note that the Swedish Film’s rapist Nils Bjurman is a colder and more frightening figure, while the American film’s is a more imposing one in comparison with its petite Salander; we give the edge to  2009’s Sven-Bertil Taube over 2011’s Christopher Plummer in the key role of Henrik Vanger, that rarest of all mystery characters, the likeable and sincere wealthy industrialist who is not implicated in any crimes. (For a more typical specimen of his breed, see John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown.) Plummer is excellent in his role, but Taube is given somewhat better stuff to do, and is in particular more heartbreaking in the scene where he is reunited with his long-missing niece.
  
The casting of the leads is significantly more critical and makes more of a difference.

As Mikael Blomkvist, 2009’s Michael Nyquist and 2011’s Daniel Craig seem equivalent at first glance; they even look a little alike, though Nyquist looks a little lumpier, more of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation, than Craig does. Craig comes with the baggage of multiple action heroes, including James Bond, a past and future incarnation that makes him seem a little more indestructible than Blomkvist should probably be (even if Craig’s Bond was, like Blomkvist, capable of being driven to despairing tears when death seemed imminent.  The first film’s de-emphasis of Blomkvist as prolific cocksman-around-town also goes well with Nyquist’s less-than-Bondian appearance, and the character’s sincere astonishment when Salander leaps into bed with him. Craig can’t be entirely faulted for this, as actors always bring the baggage left over from their past roles, but it’s still there. In the remake, I particularly miss one scene of many from 2009 that establish his human limitations: i.e., when he hesitates at the wheel of their rental car, confessing to Salander that he hasn’t driven since his divorce. That’s the act of a limited man in danger of being over his head. There’s nothing in the 2011 film to keep you from assuming that Blomkvist couldn’t engage in Bondian car chases if he wanted to.

As Lisbeth Salander, 2009’s Noomi Rapace and 2011’s Rooney Mara play the same notes, but with completely different instruments that achieve much different effects.  Rapace has a lean, angular face, which emphasized all of Salander’s savagery; she’s downright fearsome, especially in the scenes where she takes her revenge on Bjurman and hops on her bike to go after the serial-killing Martin. (There is no doubt, in the earlier film, that when she pursues Martin he is in big fucking trouble, and it feels damned good.) By contrast, Rooney Mara has a much softer, baby-faced appearance; she looks smaller, and more vulnerable, more like a person who has made herself what she is as protective coloration, than one who just became that creature naturally after her life’s many traumas. This is nowhere more visible than in the scenes from both movies where Salander is resentfully dragged into her employer’s conference room to answer the client’s questions about Mikael Blomkvist; Rapace’s Salander is bored, resentful, contemptuous of the need to go through these formalities, and perfectly willing to be rude about it. She makes eye contact, angry eye contact.  During the same meeting, saying the same thing, Mara’s Salander is withdrawn, sullen, hiding her features under a hoodie. These are two different attitudes, two different damaged psychologies. Mara’s performance is a good one, but I give the edge to the original film. Salander shouldn’t be shy. She should be downright feral.

Further screenwriting decisions change the dynamic of the two scenes where Salander and Blomkvist make love for the first time. In 2009, Salander surprises Blomkvist by hopping into bed with him, then by leaving for her own bed without any genuine intimacy as soon as the sex is over. (When I saw the film for the first time, a perceptive fellow theatergoer exclaimed, “Man, now he knows what it’s like to be used!”) We should note that this all takes place immediately after Blomkvist has unintentionally alienated her by noticing her photographic memory, and tried to let her know afterward that he admired it. The sex she initiates is not just an expression of her growing attraction to a man whose decency she has come to recognize,  but is also a defiant declaration: You want to get close to me? This is how close you get – and no farther; it means nothing. A thread is introduced: Blomkvist’s attempt to know, really know, this angrily unknowable woman.

By contrast, in 2011, there are no such mixed signals. There is no immediately prior scene where Salander has reason to be mad at him, no moment where he’s been conciliatory. Salander just initiates sex with Blomkvist because it’s about the point in the story where that would normally happen. But it really comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t feel like it really goes anywhere until the coda. Again, the advantage here belongs to the 2009 film – where it really would have made sense to include the coda, where Salander happens upon Blomkvist strolling with another lover and storms away, feeling betrayed.

Oddly, the 2009 film, which needed it to set up the sequels where she is so furious at him that she refuses to talk to him even in conditions of dire personal need, omits the coda that establishes the reason for her resentment. The 2011 film, where the same moment feels forced, does not.

It’s not quite a wash. The relationship in the 2009 film feels like a dramatic arc. The same relationship in the 2011 film does not. 

The opening credit sequence of the 2011 version (sans titles)

Other Contrasting Storytelling Decisions

In the novel and the 2011 film, it is not Salander who breaks the missing Harriet’s biblical code. It is Blomkvist’s daughter, who comes by for a visit and sees Harriet’s notations for what they are. The original movie omits Blomkvist’s daughter entirely and presents the cracking of that code as more evidence of Salander’s scary competence. I like the splendid irrelevance of such a key clue being broken by a background character who otherwise doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I also admire the storytelling economy of attributing the same epiphany to Salander. In the end, the moment seems to work a smidgen better in the 2009 version.
 
In both films, Salander loses her trusted laptop to a violent incident in the subway. In 2009, she has a nasty and violent encounter with a bunch of drunks; in 2011, she races up an escalator to retrieve her snatched bag a mugger, then slides down the bannister to get away from him. The 2011 scene is a nice bit of physical business. It is not nearly as upsetting as the 2009 scene, which makes it a lesser scene.

The 2009 version relegates Salander’s relationship with her beloved previous legal guardian – who, by suffering a stroke, delivers her into the brutal hands of Bjurman –  to a mere line of dialogue, which burdens the sequels with the need to introduce him later. The 2011 version has three scenes with him, which serve the intended sequels but slow down this installment considerably.

The novel and the 2009 version both give another reason for Henrik Vanger to hire Blomkvist: he actually met the missing Harriet, when he was a young child and she was his babysitter. At least one major clue turns out to be his misunderstanding of his fragmentary memory from that time. I believe it a neat touch. The 2011 version omits this angle entirely, possibly because the makers thought it a bit much. It’s a wash, I think.

The 2009 version omits the Vanger Corporation’s offer to become partners in Blomkvist’s magazine, Millennium. The 2011 version emphasizes it. It’s an important plot point in the novels, but the 2011 movie is just complicated by it. It needed to go.

The 2009 film is better than the 2011 film in establishing just how Blomkvist pieces together sequential photos of Harriet watching a parade, to establish from her reactions that something across the street frightened her. It is also better at establishing how the two investigators establish the pattern of serial killings from past decades.
  
The novel establishes that, once she and Blomkvist find Harriet Vanger, Salander has nothing but contempt for the woman who spent decades in hiding rather than expose her brother as a rapist and serial killer. This happens to be a very legitimate moral point, one that Salander – who burned the primary abuser in her life – could hardly avoid feeling.  (Blomkvist’s subsequent affair with Harriet in this novel and the immediate sequel – of course he has sex with  Harriet – is yet another reason for Salander’s anger over the next two books.) The 2009 version omits Salander’s moral outrage entirely. The 2011 version has her angrily mutter something about Harriet Fucking Vanger but fails to establish just why she’s angry at the lady: a bizarre exercise in alluding to a point but not actually making it.  

Both films are faced with the necessity to dramatize the story’s anti-climax, where after the scary encounter with serial killer Martin Blomkvist must a) discover the missing Harriet still alive, b) engineer a tearful reunion with Uncle Henrik, c) be handed the evidence against the Wennerstrom Corporation. In the 2009 film, he must also report to serve his prison sentence. In the novel, this prison sentence takes place in the middle of the action; in the 2009 movie, after Blomkvist and Salander solve the Harriet Vanger mystery. The 2011 version omits it entirely.

(It’s not bad in a novel to have a character go away for a prison term in the middle of the action; it can be taken care of in a couple of pages, and establish the passage of time. In the 2009 movie, it helps get Blomkvist out of the way while Salander makes heroic efforts of research on his behalf. (And it adds to the effectiveness original film’s far more elegant compression of the backstory, far superior to the 2011 version’s insistence on showing us every step in Salander’s process.) 

The 2009 movie quite rightly paces everything after the encounter with Martin as a final act, but one that flows, inevitably, to the conclusion; the 2011 film gives us way too much and is so narratively lumpy it feels like the series of climaxes that had audiences revolting at the end of The Return Of The King.  It honestly does not work. Only six minutes longer, it feels almost forty minutes longer than that. On the other hand – since in both the novel and the 2009 film Blomkvist flies off to Australia where he locates Harriet Vanger in hiding – it makes precious little sense in the 2009 film to have the prison sentence delayed until after Blomkvist makes this trip; at least, not if you think the Swedish authorities would have something to say about a convicted felon jetting off to the other side of the world before he serves even one day of his sentence. Wouldn’t they prohibit him from traveling internationally until after he served his time?

The 2011 film is oddly discordant in the scenes where Salander, she of the photographic memory, makes a map documenting the movements of the serial killer. She uses thumbnails of the victims, taped to the map. She is the only one using this map, as she does this research. Why does she need it? After all, it has long been established that her memory is infallible. Is it because she knows that there’s an audience out there that requires the reminder?

Finally, both films take it upon themselves to tell us a major part of Lisbeth Salander’s backstory – her torching of her abusive father – that was not revealed until book 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire. The 2009 version presents us with a fragmentary flashback, hinting at deeper secrets; it is a powerful moment. The 2011 version? She casually reveals the secret in answer to a direct question, while in bed with Blomkvist. It’s almost a joke.

Does the 2011 version do anything substantially better than the 2009 version? Well, it benefits from having a director with a more marked touch with visuals. Certainly, the scenes set in winter feel colder, in terms of both temperature and emotional isolation, than anything from the 2009 film. It’s more adroitly edited. But if you want the version that, to this viewer’s mind, boils a long and lumpy novel into an effective, streamlined cinematic thriller…it’s the 2009 film.

And now, the wife enters, angrily gripping a tattoo needle…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Sven Bertil Taube, Peter Andersson. 152 minutes. **1/2

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011). Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Stieg Larsson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Yorick van Wageningen. 158 minutes. ** 1/2.

Over the years, I have listened to many people warble on about how great this movie was, and how I just had to see it.  Or, how incredible this or that book was and since I read books, I just had to read it.  Well, I resisted all the Da Vinci nonsense, but succumbed to my curiosity in respect to the topic under discussion here.  Why!?!?

I’ll actually begin with the book.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an international bestseller and now I know the key to a mystery best selling novel.  Write a so-so mystery , not too tough for the average fella and then drop dead(or get killed).  The so called mystery with all the red herrings is just too easy for words.  I had it tied up before Salander makes it to the Vanger enclave.  I continued to plod on for fear that the writer may have a true surprise waiting, but alas, disappointed again!

As for either film, I prefer the 2009 original for its fealty to the book, but the bits left out still really diminish the characters.  The 2011 version seems to dote on the plot bits and diminish the characters.  Neither is satisfying as a visual meal, but either is preferable to an Adam Sandler comedy film fest.

Let’s try to remember, Blomkvist is a horndog , Salander is a psychotic genius and Vanger is a manipulative old man.  These are the meat from which these sandwiches were made, but somehow they are all served stale and cold.

  

 

 

 


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Based on a story outline and abandoned by Akira Kurosawa (who was never quite able to make it work, and thus moved on to other things), and directed by russian emigree Andrei Konchalovsky (who, from evidence available on-screen, seems to have had a limited command of english and, for all his masterful use of visuals, couldn’t be trusted to reject the takes where actors placed emphases on the wrong words in sentences), it was filled with wonderful / awful performances, with both qualities sometimes evident in the very same speech. Also, the central problem? As the climax makes perfectly clear, the convicts and female railroad worker trapped on the titular uncontrolled vehicle never were doomed; there was a quite simple way to save themselves, visible from early on, that would have saved them quite a bit of trouble if they’d just thought of it as soon as they realized what their situation was.

None of this matters. It is a splendidly visual feast, and a resonant melodrama, with thrilling action.

The scene you’re about to see is one of the best in the career of Jon Voight (who, I contend, gave what was simultaneously his best and worst performance). The younger runaway convict played by Eric Roberts has just told Voight’s mad dog that he’s gonna go back to civilization, get himself some fine clothes, and go out night-clubbing with all those fine bitches. Voight’s character gives him a reality check: one for the lifetime-achievement highlight reel.

DOWNFALL

Posted: January 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

This review was written, out of sheer admiration, upon my first exposure to the movie in question. I just watched it again and my admiration is not diluted. For

The scene is the outer office of a very important man, where a number of young stenographers have arrived for a job interview. They are fidgety and nervous at the very idea that they will soon be ushered into his presence. When he comes out, he proves to be kind and gentle, compassionate in light of their nervousness and charmed by their eagerness to please him. He brings one, a Miss Traudl Junge, into his inner office. She is startled by the big dog sitting in the corner, but he tells her that it’s friendly and won’t hurt her. Still showing extraordinary patience, he shows her to the typewriter, and tells her not to worry, because he will likely make more mistakes than she will. After a few lines, she stops typing in mid-sentence and sits there, trembling, thinking that she’s blown it. He comes over, looks over her shoulder, and sees a simple typo. No wonder she’s so scared! An indulgent, avuncular smile crosses his face. “Let’s give it another try.”

A few minutes later she leaves the office and is embraced by the other girls when she announces she has the job.

What a sweet boss.

The kind you would like to have, if you were the young Traudl Junge.

Of course, he’s also Adolph Hitler.

The German DOWNFALL is another in a series of dramas about the Nazi hierarchy huddled together in Hitler’s bunker, clinging to their illusions while Berlin is pounded into rubble above them There have been several, all defined by their Hitlers. One starred Anthony Hopkins and one starred Alec Guinness. Despite the talent on display, most were not any good. They all had an unknowable void at their center: the Fuhrer himself, who was always portrayed as a maniacal, charmless loon, his personality utterly blank whenever he wasn’t shrieking about betrayals or ordering summary executions.
DOWNFALL is a departure so outrageous that some critics have regarded it with open hostility. It humanizes the Fuhrer. Without once diminishing his madness or denying the scale of his crimes, it treats him as a man his subordinates could legitimately regard with respect and affection. He is just as evil when he declares that the civilians dying in the city above deserve everything that befalls them, just as crazy when he stymies his generals by telling them to rely on nonexistent reinforcements, just as hateful when he places all the blame for Germany’s downfall on the Jews he’s happy to have cleared out of Europe…but he’s also, paradoxically, an adored Uncle to the Goebbels children, and the fellow who can thrill his underlings with sudden, unforced moments of warmth. Traudl finds it hard to reconcile. She confides in Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, “He’s such a kind man, but sometimes he says such brutal things.” Eva smiles knowingly: “That’s when he’s being the Fuhrer.”

Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler, inhabits the role as few ever have. Ranting, he’s a guy you want to be continents removed from: murderous, racist, filled with hate, contemptuous of the fate of civilian Berlin. But Hitler wasn’t ranting every hour he was awake. He was, like the father of most dysfunctional families, capable of making people love him when he was between tantrums. And as he shuffles back and forth through the cramped spaces of his Bunker, dealing with trivia (well) and larger issues (blindly), he invests this Hitler with something no screen portrayal has ever possessed before: a soul.
The frightening effect: at times, you almost feel sorry for him and his cohorts.

They have parties. They eat lunch. They wonder if they should slip away. They say they can’t: not if that means abandoning him.

How sympathetic they are, in their plight.

Then they do something to remind you who they are.

And oh, shit, you’re reminded: these are the Nazis we’re talking about.

If the movie has anybody whose humanity has been completely eaten away, it’s Josef and Magda Goebbels, who are just as chillingly unknowable here as they are in most screen retellings of these events. They figure in one of the most horrifying film sequence in years: Magda’s murder, by poison, of her drugged children, who she does not want living in a world without national socialism. Over a period of several minutes, she goes to each child in her large brood, feeds them cyanide, then makes them clamp down. Each child shudders and lies still. She remains dry-eyed as she leaves the room, refuses an embrace from her husband, and goes off to play one last game of solitaire.

This is also our species.

The movie is not confined to the bunker. There are major story threads taking place in the ruins above: including one involving a ten-year-old boy who considers it his duty to help the soldiers save Berlin, and the father who wants him to stop. The scenes set in the doomed city, which clearly depict hundreds of wounded huddling together in the wreckage of buildings, while overworked doctors perform battlefield amputations, are like snapshots of hell. When Hitler dies, the movie still has another forty minutes left to go. The larger picture provides the context for any viewers unfamiliar with history: this is what that kind, gentlemanly figure with the hair-trigger temper has reduced this country to.

DOWNFALL is actually the second movie to humanize Hitler in a manner defensible to thinking people. The other, MAX, took place immediately after the first World War and involved a half-mad, ranting Hitler befriended by a Jewish art dealer who almost succeeds in making him give up politics for painting. That film was interesting, but only on the level of an intriguing failure. Its Hitler was so off-putting as a young man that there’s no reason Max would have anything to do with him. This one works on the level of a genuine masterpiece, and it raises the immediate question of whether it should. Is there anything to be accomplished by humanizing these monsters? Making sympathetic figures out of those who see that the cause is lost, and urge the Fuhrer to spare what remains of Berlin? Even in making us fret about the fate of sweet, naive young Traudl Junge, who was after all only a secretary with no real power, but who enthusiastically worked for one of the most evil men ever to walk the planet? Who at one point refused his offer to release her from duty, and stayed by his side until the very last day, even planning to join him in death?

The answer is yes.

It’s too easy to see these people as less than human.

As aliens. Others.

But they were human. In a sad, horrifying way, they may have telling representatives of our sometimes sad, horrifying species. They were corrupt and they were hateful and they were evil incarnate, but they were human, as prone to moments of folksy warmth as those who just as blindly plunge their own nations into lesser cataclysms. We’ll never understand them if we never understand that. The trick lies in seeing what they are as well as what they’ve done. And what they might do, if we fall for their slogans again.

As is only appropriate, DOWNFALL ends with closing notes detailing the number of people who died in World War Two, the number specifically killed in concentration camps, and the fates of the dramatis personae. It’s stunning to note just how many of the people who spent some of those last few days in the Bunker survived (sometimes in freedom) for decades after the deaths of the regime’s victims. They lived until the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. Junge herself survived well into the new century, where just before her death she allowed herself to be interviewed, at length, for a film aptly called BLIND SPOT. The very last shot of the film features this now very old woman, talking about how she used to tell herself that she couldn’t have known the scale of the Fuhrer’s crimes, and how she continued to deny her own complicity until she passed a monument to a fallen resistance leader her own age. “It was always possible to find out,” she says. She just didn’t let herself know. She had too much affection for the smiling man with the friendly dog.