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A monstrous man: Ganz as Hitler in Downfall.

Descent Into Madness
By Ann Morrow

Downfall

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Downfall, the first German film about Adolf Hitler and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film, covers the 12 days leading to Hitler’s suicide and the end of the Third Reich. But though Hitler’s final days have been covered before, Downfall brings new depth and objectivity to the collapse of the Nazi state. Meticulously directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and featuring a harrowing lead performance by Bruno Ganz as Hitler, Downfall is nearly on a par with Schindler’s List for movies about the Third Reich.

Only don’t expect any uplift. Most of Downfall occurs in the bunker, a sprawling complex built 30 feet below the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, and Hirschbiegel is relentless in his observation of madness and destruction. Among the retinue that goes underground with Hitler is his secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). Events are seen mostly through her eyes; the film is partly based on Junge’s autobiography, and through her, we get a sense of the lure of being in the very vortex of power. Traudl, a 22-year-old naïf, spends more time with the Fuhrer than any of his advisors, and as his typist, she is privy to all of his correspondence.

She’s also the object of Hitler’s kindly and paternalistic side, as are some other underlings. The director’s intense realism with the personalities of Hitler and his closest cronies has drawn criticism, but by providing insight into the real human beings that they were, their ego-driven fanaticism and monstrous actions are made even more horrific. The domestic final solution committed by Magda Goebbels (a chilling Corinna Harfouch), especially, is difficult to watch.

Conversely, there’s a element of sympathy for Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), a fun-loving ditz who willingly deludes herself as to the man she’s attached to, and who goes out in a blaze of hedonism tempered by sadness. The gorgeous, charming Köhler (Aimee & Jaguar) gives one of the film’s best performances, and that’s saying a lot. But it’s the Swiss actor Ganz who carries the film. That Ganz doesn’t actually look like Hitler seems to aid him in creating a distinctive version, one that is not only despicable, but pathetic. By 1945, Hitler’s deterioration was pronounced. Ganz captures this deterioration: It’s in the sheer venom to his ranting, his grotesque lack of compassion, and the delusional aspect to both his methodical plans for committing suicide and his interludes of grandiose certainty that Germany, under his brilliant command, is going to win the war.

As Downfall’s close scrutiny implies, Hitler’s insanity and his magnetism are flip sides of the same coin, and his death obsession holds sway to the very end. One of the more sickening aspects of the last days is how much of the Nazi party remains in slavish obedience to the powerless dictator. With what reason and authority he has left, Hitler tries to ensure that the German populace is eradicated in its entirety.

Hirschbiegel is known for his skill with claustrophobic settings—he was acclaimed for a prison drama called The Experiment—and he gets the most out of this concrete purgatory with its sickly lighting. The destruction of Berlin, too, has a penned-in menace, from its rubble-choked streets to the hellish, overcrowded hospital staffed only by an aged surgeon and an academic internist. The internist (Christian Berkel) questions Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and serves, faintly, as the voice of reason. As the Russians advance, the SS commits its last acts of terror, turning on the citizens of Berlin, and on each other, with mindless savagery. The contrast between the efforts of those trying to stay alive, or to keep others alive, with the suicidal vanity of the bunker crew is lastingly disturbing.

The film ends with an admission of culpability from Junge, who died in 2002. Even without it, the film’s contemporary resonance would be noticeable: The Nazis’ equation of depravity with moral superiority is something to think about in these increasingly fanatical times.


Soccer dad from hell: Ferrell in Kicking & Screaming.

Minor League

Kicking & Screaming

Directed by Jesse Dylan

The Little League program with which our family is involved focuses not on competitive spirit—nor even, for that matter, on the realities of the game—but on falsely maintaining a sense of fairness and equality. Perhaps you’ve been there: There’s no such thing as a strike; everybody gets on base, even if that means everybody waits while your kid swings the bat scores of time; and there’s no such thing as a double, let alone a home run. Oh, and did I mention that the league frowns on informing the kids of the actual game scores, even though any kid with a reasonable IQ can figure it out, and even though the parents and the coaches are highly cognizant of the end sum of any game?

This, my friends, is the new mentality of youth sports in America, which decrees that there is no middle ground between everybody having a good time and everybody learning to play a competitive sport. And it is this mentality that the new film Kicking & Screaming feebly tries to channel while making weak attacks on the philosophy of winning at all cost.

Amiable Phil Weston (Will Ferrell) is a vitamin salesman and happy husband to Barb (Kate Walsh) and dad to Sam (Dylan McLaughlin). His only source of conflict seems to come from his fiercely competitive, über-successful dad Buck (Robert Duvall making hay of his Great Santini persona), a soccer coach so fixated on winning that he trades Sam to a loser team, the Tigers, rather than have him continue to warm his own bench. Determined to prove to Sam that he’s more than just a benchwarmer, Phil agrees to coach the Tigers, and to prove to his Bad News Bear-ish team that, despite lack of skill and competitive temperament, they, too, can have a really fun time.

There are some very humorous moments in which Phil, initially, goes the sensitive, new-agey route with the team, before descending into the full throttles of competitive drive, fueled by coffee and a lifelong sense of failure. He enlists Mike Ditka, his father’s feuding neighbor, to instill discipline and skills, a stunt that is mildly amusing, though it works better when it’s just Phil and Mike debating life. The kids that Phil coaches are the usual motley assortment of types—there’s the pint-sized cutie who, in this case, has two mommies, there’s the kid who will do any gross stunt for effect, the oversized dummie, the smart aleck, and, in the words of Gilligan’s Island, “the rest.”

As is the case with just about any American film about sports, the underdogs, having been thoroughly humbled, go on to triumph against all odds, proving yet again that you can have your cake and eat it too—even if you truly suck. The trouble with the movie is that it’s just too namby-pamby about either side of the “how to coach kids” debate. While it purports to mock the ultra-competitiveness seen in, say, the Niskayuna school district, these scenes are actually more interesting than those in which the filmmakers extol the virtues of foregoing the tryout system in order to let everybody play.

The parents of the Tigers are seen, alternately, looking vaguely troubled or wildly rooting for the team when it begins to win by relying on a pair of Italian-born ringers. One can’t help but wonder why screenwriters Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick didn’t make more out of the parents’ complicity in (a) wanting to win and (b) not wanting to actually coach themselves. This golden opportunity is squandered, however, in favor of shots of kids eating worms and—almost another movie in itself—Phil’s descent into caffeine addiction. Kids will no doubt find a lot to laugh about in scenes in which soccer balls connect with an opponent’s groin, but adults will be left to scratch their heads and wonder.

—Laura Leon

A Good Scare

House of Wax

Directed by Jaume Collett-Serra

Generally speaking, I just say no to horror flicks, not wishing to subject myself to bad acting, fake blood, severed limbs and, well, the heebie-jeebies one gets, say, when walking from a darkened garage to one’s dark house. So seeing House of Wax was more a matter of missing the start time of the chosen movie, and deciding, what the hell, we can always leave—which in itself sounds much like a plot device of too many horror movies.

The “reimagining” of House of Wax, directed by Jaume Collett-Serra from a script by Chad and Carey W. Hayes, is somewhat of a pleasant surprise. It succeeds, at least, in the way that the plot conveys a bit of psychological subtext, and in the way characters you mentally mark as soon-to-be dead meat come in for some surprises—if only with respect to the order of victimhood.

You know the drill. Teens go on a road trip fraught with sexual tension and, in the case of renegade twin Nick (Chad Michael Murray), a serious antisocial streak, when they get off the main road for some much-needed rest—and, of course, sex, in the case of Blake (Robert Ri’chard) and Paige (Paris Hilton). It should be said that Hilton, if not exactly an actress, shows enormous good humor in sending up her randy image, particularly as downloaded by millions a la that notorious sex video. Rounding out the group are Nick’s dimwitted friend Dalton (Jon Abrahams), who has a crush on Nick’s twin Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), aka the “good twin,” and Carly’s squeeze Wade (Jared Padelecki).

It takes some time for the blood to start flowing, but that actually serves to nicely notch up the fear factor. The filmmakers make good use of creepy Louisiana woods, foreboding pickup trucks, exposed limbs, and, eventually, a haunted town whose theatre marquee still advertises Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Jason Baird’s wax figures are really quite good, and Brian Van Holt, playing that other, more nefarious pair of twins, is suitably creepy and terrifying, depending on which brother he’s playing.

While you sort of know what’s going to happen, the movie provides a few surprises, like how much you root for a red-undies-clad Hilton to beat the crap out of her tormentor, or how if you were Carly, you’d be really glad, given the situation, your brother was such a badass. The ultimate showdown between good and evil features a melting house of wax that, to my mind, looked a wee too much like the contents of newborn diapers, but at least the movie ends with that all-important, spine-tingling hint toward a sequel. Not bad for a second choice.

—Laura Leon


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