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Bunker Down: Bruno Ganz cowers through the demise of the Third Reich in 'Downfall.'

Spitting Devil

Hitler and his Reich minions die like poisoned rats in a bunker in 'Downfall'

By Richard von Busack

DON'T EXPECT that familiar Hitler Channel drone from Downfall (Der Untergang). For 2 1/2 fascinating hours, this superb historical drama watches the Third Reich die like a poisoned rat in a hole. In April 1945, the Red Army encircles Berlin and its 3 million civilians in a titanic armored attack. Underground, the German high command is deciding whether to flee, die in a suicidal counterattack or stay hidden and drink champagne, cyanide or both. Traudl Junge (Emmy Rossum look-alike Alexandra Maria Lara) watches the chaos fearfully. She is Hitler's secretary, who in real life survived to be the subject of a tell-all documentary.

Junge is a naive in the rogues' gallery, somebody to root for amid all those myriad levels of insanity and opportunism. For instance, Heino Ferch's Albert Speer is possibly the most immaculately tailored man onscreen since the end of the Hollywood studio era. Lurking about is Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), the brains of the operation and the self-appointed heir-apparent: scheming, skull-faced and thin as a cadaver. His spouse, the Aryan Medea Magda Goebbels (subtly played by Corinna Harfouch), is even more frightening. We meet their doomed children: little blonde Goebbelses clamoring for a glimpse of "Uncle Hitler" and seeking to cheer him with a song. After seeing them sing in Downfall, one can never afterward watch the Trapp family in The Sound of Music in quite the same way.

The cozier domestic side is provided by Eva Braun (the fine Juliane Köhler of Aimée & Jaguar), portrayed as a busy hostess whose party is going very wrong. One sharp detail Kohler cooks up is having Eva shriek "Eeee!" and comically shudder as she's taught the proper way to blow one's head off. Pity her, she isn't allowed to smoke, even though the capital is in flames. ("Berlin's become a warehouse district," goes an overheard sick joke. "Where's my house? Where's my house?")

The big man is parceled out in small and dramatically effective doses. As played by Ganz, Hitler is a large gray crow, hunched, croaking, his trembling, clawlike hands wadded behind his back, limping through the bomb-wrecked yard of his bunker. Hitler is a desirable role for actors as different in their métier as Sir Alec Guinness or Moe Howard. Ganz is handily the best of all, and not just for being German-speaking, for recalling the way Hitler sounds in recording. The more intimate details must be Ganz's own: the veal-colored skin, the dainty way he primps his comb-over.

The world is ending, but the staff still wraps white linen on the champagne bottles. Goebbels chooses his last words with bogus sportsmanship: "Les jeux sont fait." Meanwhile, in another part of the bunker, battlefield surgery continues, and there isn't enough room in the basins for all the amputated hands and feet. "That's what young men are for," Hitler protests, when someone complains of the useless sacrifice. If there are a few who still revere Hitler, how could they persist after seeing this movie's exposure of the cynicism underneath the fascist dream?

Downfall (R; 155 min.), directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, written by Bernd Eichinger, photographed by Rainer Klausmann and starring Bruno Ganz and Alexandra Maria Lara, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the March 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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