downfall (oliver hirschbiegel, 2004)

It's always an odd feeling to come to a classic film long after everyone else has already seen it. It's especially weird in this case, because Downfall has become famous in the nearly 20 years since its release as the source for endless parodies of one particular scene. If you haven't seen Downfall, you might think you know nothing about it, but chances are you've seen at least one of these:

There's nothing wrong with these parodies, and sure, we know when we watch them that they aren't meant to represent the actual movie. But while I didn't expect to see 2 1/2 hours of Hitler rants, I realized as I watched that the endless parodies did give me a warped sense of what went on in Downfall. I assumed the entire movie would take place in Hitler's bunker, but actually much of the film takes place outside the bunker, as Berlin falls to the Russians. The isolation of Hitler in his bunker is contrasted with the realities of what the German people are experiencing at that moment.

Some have criticized Downfall for showing "the human side" of Hitler and his Nazis, and the presentation of scenes in the bunker do engender a certain uncomfortable connection with the bunker's inhabitants. As Charlie Bertsch wrote, "Even though Hitler is clearly mad and his associates mostly venal and inept, their dire predicament and the time viewers spend with them in the claustrophobically close quarters of the bunker elicit a kind of structural identification, a sympathy in spite of itself à la the famous 'Stockholm Syndrome', that threatens to conceal the magnitude of their crimes." This makes the scenes outside the bunker crucial: once we lose the claustrophobic connection, once we see the horrors in Berlin, we awake from our Stockholm Syndrome.

Perhaps lost in all of this is that Downfall is a great movie. Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is uncanny. Ulrich Matthes' Goebbels looks like a zombie, which is somehow scarily appropriate. And Alexandra Maria Lara perfectly captures the complications of her character, Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge, who survived and later in life wrote a memoir that is one of the sources for the film.

Here is the actual scene that inspired a thousand parodies:

Personal addendum: on our honeymoon 50 years ago, my wife and I went to a movie. That became a tradition ... every year on our anniversary, we see a movie together. That honeymoon movie was Hitler: The Last Ten Days, with Alec Guinness. Here is the "Steiner" scene from that movie ... it's startling how much it resembles Downfall, which came out more than 30 years later:

geezer cinema: extraction 2 (sam hargrave, 2023)

As is often the case with sequels to successful films, with Extraction 2 you get more of the same, emphasis on more. Writing about these movies is easy ... you can just be lazy, cut-and-paste what you said about the original, make a couple of adjustments, and you're done. Hey, I imagine in some ways that's how the sequels get made in the first place: cut-and-paste what worked, make a couple of adjustments, and you're done. So, here's what I said about Extraction:

It's a loud movie filled with a gazillion rounds of ammunition from a variety of guns. There are also grenades that make a lot of noise, car crashes that make a lot of noise, explosions that make a lot of noise, and for variety, there is the occasional blood letting by knife. Sam Hargrave doesn't seem interested in any deep meanings ... he's an award-winning stunt coordinator directing his first movie. He is competent, but the movie cranks up to another level when Hargrave can focus on stunts.

A lot of technical skill is on display during the stunt fests. It looks very efficient and relatively seamless. The selling point is a "oner", an 11 1/2-minute single-take action scene. It works not only as "look what we can do", but also as an effective action sequence.... Extraction does what it sets out to do, and occasionally adds some panache.

The movie comes to a halt whenever the action does the same. There are the usual attempts to make us care about the characters, none of which worked on me.

All of the above describes Extraction 2. Of course, there's that emphasis on more ... this time, the "oner" is 21 minutes long. The sequel is seven minutes longer than the original. If the first film hinted at a sequel, now that the sequel is here (and both films have been very successful for Netflix), it's more evident that a franchise is on the way (Extraction 3 is already being worked on). Chris Hemsworth is just as good here as he was in the first one, as is Golshifteh Farahani. My wife thought this was a bit better than the first one. I didn't notice. (My wife, on the other hand, gets better every day.)

film fatales #149: toni erdmann (maren ade, 2016)

Toni Erdmann is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of recent years (it's #363 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #13 on the 21st-century list). I can see why. It's a lengthy comedy with plenty of insightful character studies, some fine acting by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, and many unique scenes. The story of an eccentric father and his workaholic daughter is simple on the surface, but there is nothing simple about the approach of Maren Ade, who wrote and directed the film.

And yet, I had problems with it. I'm inclined to think the problem is in me. The father's attempts to move his daughter away from a work life he sees as strangling her are well-meant, and it's easy to root for the free-spirited father in his quest. The daughter certainly seems to dislike her life. But while his actions, most of which involve ridiculous fake teeth, are funny at first, ultimately for me, I started to side with the daughter. I didn't envy the pressures her job put on her, I thought she could use some relief, but her father's antics made me hate him. I ended up wishing he would leave her alone, which I'm sure isn't Ade's intended point. Your mileage may vary, of course ... like I said, critics loved it.

what i watched

A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1946). I have never seen a movie by Jean Renoir that I didn't like a lot, and of course, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion are among my favorite movies of all time. A first glance, A Day in the Country might seem like "minor" Renoir ... he intended it as a short to fit into an anthology film, but didn't finish it. It was finally released ten years later. But there is nothing minor about it. It plays like a warm up for Rules of the Game, and it demonstrates the usual Renoir touch for humanizing all characters without getting sappy about it. And the people connected with this one are a who's who in their own right. The story comes from Guy de Maupassant ... the female lead is played by Sylvia Bataille, a top actress who also spent many years with Jacques Lacan ... among the many assistant directors were Jacques Becker, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Yves Allégret, and Luchino Visconti (on a 40-minute movie!) ... the cinematographer was Jean's nephew, Claude ... and Jean's son Alain appears briefly (he grew up to be a professor at Cal, where I once was privileged to hear him tell a dirty joke). Can I get a whew!? All of this trivia shouldn't draw our attention away from how good A Day in the Country is. #125 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000). One of the many recommendation systems I use suggested I watch In Vanya's Room, from the highly-regarded director Pedro Costa. But I had seen one of Costa's movies, Colossal Youth, and didn't like it much. And In Vanya's Room clocks in at 170 minutes. So I opted for Code Unknown. I had seen four films by Michael Haneke, and found all but one to be excellent (especially Caché and The White Ribbon), so it was a pretty easy choice. Haneke's movies are idiosyncratic, intense, and for some people, a little cold. Juliette Binoche helps warm things up with a fine performance. Haneke chops up his scenes ... each is usually just one take, and he uses blackouts to go from one scene to the next. It can be confusing, but it works in the context of a film about modern multicultural society, where we never seem to know the code. (Haneke has said that at the time he made the movie, Austria, where he was from, still mostly used door bells and intercoms, while in France where the filming took place, everyone typed in codes to gain access.) Always intriguing even when it confuses, and Binoche makes up for a lot. #757 on the TSPDT top 1000 list, #119 on the 21st Century list. In this early scene, several main characters cross paths:

what i watched last week

One thing I realized while spending six months watching my fifty favorite movies is … well, I like old movies, for one thing, which leads to the main point. I tend to watch movies out of chronological order. I don’t rush out to watch the latest movies, which isn’t to say there are no good ones. I’m just describing my viewing habits. So last week’s “what i watched” featured one movie from 1957, one from 1972, one from 1974, and one from 2005. And I didn’t even watch those in chronological order; the 1957 film was the last I watched.

This means I have to create my own context. I can apply what I know about film history, and, if I remember when the film came out, I can call on personal experience (i.e. my untrustworthy memories). But this is a scattershot approach.

And it occurred to me that this isn’t limited to movies. In the era of near-complete “every song ever recorded, whenever and wherever you want to hear it,” the entire history of recorded music ends up on shuffle play. I have playlists that provide some order, and occasionally I’ll latch onto a new album, like Wire Flag’s debut. But for the most part, I’m listening to music out of its chronological context. Which is old news, but I hadn’t previously thought about how I do the same thing with movies.

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009). I didn’t much like the only other Haneke film I’d seen (The Piano Teacher), but this one sucked me right in. The open-ended nature of the mystery plot, and the way the film can be connected to historical events or seen as relevant to the current era, could seem like a cop-out, with Haneke doing everything he can to whet our appetite for some concrete resolution. But it’s not; this really is a case where the filmmaker wants the audience to work things out for themselves. Meanwhile, Mick LaSalle was on target when he wrote, “In a sense, this is the film M. Night Shyamalan has been trying and failing to make for the past 10 years: There is evil lurking in a seemingly idyllic village, and that evil dwells within. But instead of using the metaphor of space invaders or a frightening epidemic to get this across, Haneke rejects metaphors and tackles the notion head on.” #117 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942). World War II comedy that was extremely audacious for its time (and flopped with audiences and critics). M*A*S*H was an artifact of the Vietnam War that deflected its anti-war ideology by situating the action in Korea. To Be or Not to Be was a comedy about Nazis in Poland, made during the time when the real-life Nazis were in Poland, released soon after Pearl Harbor, with a leading actress who had just died in a plane crash. That’s a lot of baggage, and it’s understandable it didn’t succeed on its initial release. Now, it is considered a classic American comedy, but it still draws a lot of its power from the historical context. It’s funny, but not hilarious; it’s easy to admire it, yet you don’t always laugh. As a big Jack Benny fan, I especially enjoyed him here. He doesn’t exactly stretch his acting chops … some of the funniest moments in the movie come when Benny, dressed up as a Nazi, does his standard double-takes or walks across the screen in his inimitable way. #73 on the TSPDT list of the Top 1000 films of all time.

revanche (götz spielmann, 2008)

Yes, I know it’s been awhile since I posted one of these. Y’all know why … what I watched last week, and the week before that, and the week before that, and the week before that, was the World Cup. But my viewing habits are returning to normal as the World Cup winds down.

Revanche is an Austrian film, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar two years ago, irritated me at the beginning for a simple reason: I couldn’t turn the subtitles on, so I couldn’t understand the dialogue. Rather than waiting about 35 seconds and finding out that only the Russian dialogue was without subtitles (and that almost the entire movie is in German), I spent a quarter of an hour on the Internet trying to find out if my Blu-ray was defective. Thankfully, I finally got around to watching the movie, which was terrific. It reminded me of Lantana, another relatively obscure film I’d loved, although I couldn’t say why, other than that it snuck up on me until I realized how highly I valued it. So I went back and found my blog post on Lantana (which coincidentally was written during the 2002 World Cup), and was startled to find that, despite the two films being pretty different, my Lantana comments fit very well with what I thought of Revanche:

[O]ne of the best movies I've seen in a long time…. It is nominally a mystery, but it's ultimately more a character study than it is anything else. The plot is a bit convoluted (although it's always clearly understandable) and some of the coincidences are a bit much. Beyond that, though, [it] was to me a realist picture; I believed in the lives I was watching on the screen, agonized with those lives, recognized myself and others in the tiny details and un-heroic efforts of average people to cope with daily life.

Revanche isn’t quite a mystery, but it is definitely a character study. A brief, mostly spoiler-free synopsis of the plot suggests lots of action … you’ve got brothels and bank robbers, tormented cops and tormented criminals, women who know more than they let on and women who don’t know everything they need to know. But the film moves slowly; it gets where it needs to be, but there is no hurry. Neither is it predictable … you think you see where it’s going, but you’re wrong at least as often as you’re right. In World Cup terms, Revanche is Spain: remarkable, efficient, with more depth than meets the eye.

what i watched last week

The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007). Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on a memoir by a fairly typical hero of Holocaust dramas, an idealist who tries to sabotage Nazi efforts to produce enough counterfeit English and American money to destroy their economies. The film moves this hero to the side ... the central character becomes the best counterfeiter in the world, whose moral perspective is more complex. The movie is the better for this shift.

Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992). As good as ever, except by this point, the ear-slicing seems gratuitous. And yes, I'm aware many people figured this out the first time they saw it.

The Long Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958). Not what you'd call great Faulkner, it's actually closer to Tennessee Williams. Orson Welles has really odd makeup, and the movie's ending is so happy it's creepy. But it's an entertaining film. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward married when they were done making this one.

Shine a Light (Martin Scorsese, 2008). Everything you've heard is true. Scorsese manages to create a sense of intimacy, which is, of course, thrown off by the fact that one is never truly intimate with Mick Jagger. It is exquisitely filmed and sounds terrific, the band is indeed ancient but Blu-ray brings out the charm in the creases of their faces. Just like Keith predicted so long ago, they're like old blues guy who just keep playing until they die, because that's what they do. Buddy Guy adds his own brand of charisma, Jack White looks very glad to be there, and Christina Aguilera does fine in her toe-to-toe rumble with Mick on "Live With Me" (although this is also the one time when age matters ... it's kinda creepy when "Mick" hits on "Xtina"). Early on, Mick almost seems to be doing an imitation of David Johansen, which is kinda interesting, but eventually he settles on an imitation of Mick Jagger, and hey, nobody does it better. The main problem is that the film documents artists who retain a certain vitality, and who have a great back catalog to work from, but who don't really matter any longer. Which isn't their fault, and most bands never matter in the first place. But, as I am fond of saying when trying to explain both the times and the band, there really was a time when "Sympathy for the Devil" was appropriate, timely, and accurate. Now, it's a singalong.