Fall of Berlin Epic DVD Review by Blaine Taylor

Fall of Berlin Epic DVD Review by Blaine Taylor

On May 1, 1945, the Third Reich's besieged capital city, Berlin, surrendered to the Red Army of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Present on the scene were three of the Soviet Union's most famous Captains: Marshals Georgi Zhukov and Ivan Koniev, as well as Gen. Vasili Chuikov, but one would never know it from this outstanding piece of postwar Communist propaganda, shot on location as well as on several elaborate sets, and released in 1949, at the very height of the USSR's Stalinist "cult of personality."

The epic film's most famous---although now unintentionally hilarious---scenes occur at the end of both the movie and the battle, just concluded. In it, self-promoted Soviet Generalissimo (and also Marshal) Josef Stalin---sporting a snow-white tunic---flies down from the skies onto a Berlin airfield, emerging smiling and kindly to the cheers of his soldiers and recently liberated Nazi concentration camp inmates. Seemingly modest to the huzzahs of his minions, the Stalin figure seems for all the world not only the font of Red victory, but also as the very personification of the peace all peoples then hoped for.

The only trouble is, it didn't happen that way at all! First, Stalin never flew in his life, but arrived for the Potsdam Conference outside Berlin by secret train that July, and never received such a mighty ovation from his Occupation troops, but this is the way that he wanted history to recall these events, as directed by his hand-picked director, Mikhail Chiaureli.

According to the film's detailed box notes, "Presented as a 'gift' to Stalin on his 70th birthday---viewed by millions of Soviet filmgoers upon its release---winner of every conceivable Soviet prize, The Fall of Berlin stands as the crowning moment in Stalin's postwar deification "The Soviet dictator himself worked on the screenplay, fine-tuning its portrayal of the dictator as father-hero to his people. No expense was spared in production, and the resulting battle scenes---climaxing in the bitter struggle for Berlin's Reichstag---impressed even the film's Western critics." For this reviewer, one of the most interesting aspects of the Reichstag battle was its interior scenes.

"Wildly ambitious in its scope, the film also serves up a remarkable portrait of Hitler and his inner circle, up through the final moments in the Fuhrer's bunker." Here again, this reviewer marveled at how the Soviet filmmakers used a smaller scale, but exact replica, of the Fuhrers' ornate, massive personal study within the fabled New German Reich Chancellery in Berlin, whereas all the many Western versions of Hitler's last 10 days depict the action in the famed underground air raid shelter only. This version shows both, a truly unique portrayal of events.

"Stalin's wartime allies---Roosevelt and Churchill---also get their comeuppance in a caustic depiction of the Yalta Conference" of February 1945, although the bumbling FDR comes off rather better than the scheming, duplicitous Winnie.

"Through it all, Stalin remains unflappable---avuncular and wise---whether directing the Red Army to brilliant victory, anticipating Churchill's treachery, or providing advice to lovelorn Soviet citizens." This depiction is quite at variance with the stunned Stalin of reality when he heard of the German invasion of June 22, 1941, as faithfully recorded in the volumes of postwar memoirs of his successor as Communist Party General Secretary, Nikita S. Khrushchev, published during 1971-74.

In The Fall of Berlin, the real hero of what the Russians still refer to as the Great Patriotic War---Zhukov---is completely absent at the film's end, and thus pointedly not congratulated by the symbolic victor, Stalin. The reason was simple: the Soviet Vozhd, or dictator---who'd disastrously purged the highest echelons of the Red Army in 1937, thus leaving the country ripe for Nazi invasion---feared that his heroic Marshalate might rise upin a body, led by Zhukov, to overthrow him. Nor was he entirely wrong, either, as---following Stalin's demise---it was the decorated Hero of the Soviet Union who personally arrested the deposed NKVD secret police chief, Lavrenti P. Beria.

"After Stalin's death in 1953"---some historians believe that he was poisoned---"The Fall of Berlin was pulled from circulation during the 'de-Stalinization' campaigns that followed," initiated by NSK, starting with his famed 1956 "Secret Speech" to that year's Party Congress denouncing the crimes of his former master---in which he also participated. "With this DVD version---painstakingly restored from the original negative---one of cinema's most legendary films returns to public view. Vividly filmed in Agfacolor film stock removed from Germany by the Red Army, The Fall of Berlin features a film score by Dmitri Shostakovich."

One scene that I found particularly amusing was that in which both Hitler and his new wife---the former Eva Braun---take poison together, an occurrence that Stalin knew to be untrue, since his own NKVD had, in fact, found their charred bodies outside the bunker, which the Soviets denied until 1969, 16 years after Stalin's own death. They knew for certain that Hitler shot himself from their own top secret autopsy, but maintained the poison myth to depict their defeated foe as being more of a coward.

According to IHF, "No expense was spared in production: five artillery and infantry divisions, four tank battalions, 193 planes, and 45 German 'trophy' panzers, as well as 1.5 million liters of fuel, were used in staging its panoramic battle scenes," especially that depicting the Red Army's taking of the main Seelow Heights position outside the Nazi capital…

"The Fall of Berlin also manages to throw in a romantic subplot involving a leaden Stakhanovite, while settling any number of domestic political scores---Gen. Georgi Zhukov, for example, appears as a gullible fool, saved from his errors only by Stalin's timely intervention." In actuality, quite the reverse was the truth, as NSK emphasized time and again in his compelling memoirs.

"Indeed, Stalin's timely interventions provide this film its organizing principle, and it is he who pulls together all the threads of its wildly spinning narrative… 'Stalin is always with us,' one character (Chuikov) proclaims to his comrades on the battlefront; the propagandistic function of this film is to make us feel the godlike presence in every scene."

The film opens rather slowly in a stolid fashion to show us happy Communist Young Pioneer boys and girls in a bucolic scene in a Russia at peace, setting the stage for the initial love interest to be formed before the German invasion of June 22, 1941. Only gradually does the viewer realize that the setting is, in fact, Stalingrad, with time compression of the period June 1941 to August 1942 in a taking of dramatic license to speed things up a bit.

It is there that the military genius of Stalin leads the Red Army to its first great victory over the previously invincible German Wehrmacht/Armed Forces, thus launching its relentless drive on Berlin, in which the main protagonist---an award-winning Soviet factory worker-turned-soldier and his buddies---take leading roles. They survive to reach the Reichstag, where the hero alone triumphs, all in the name of Great Stalin.

This reviewer found especially impressive the use by the Hitler character of names found in no Western-made war film to date, such as Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German Army; and also the Papal Nuncio in Berlin (!), Monsignor Cesare Orsenigo, thus allowing the Red propagandists to take swipes at both the German Army and their enemy the Catholic Church! Famously, Stalin once snidely asked of the Pope, "How many divisions does he have?"

In addition, we witness Hitler dressing down von Brauchitsch and also Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, another major commander on the Eastern Front. In another scene that never happened, we see Hitler showing his NRC guests a bedraggled column of Soviet POWs being marched down the Wilhelmstrasse---a column that just happens to include the hero's kidnapped girlfriend! (Later, we see her rescued by him just in time before being executed by the SS as the Red Army liberates her camp outside Berlin.)

We witness behind the scenes secret peace negotiations between Reich Marshal Hermann Goring and the Allies conducted by a businessman that did, in fact, occur; we see Red Air Force planes shooting down Luftwaffe bombers, Eva chiding Adolf over his table manners, Goring at his lavish estate of Karinhall wearing medals over his leather hunter's jerkin, and the Soviet hero telling a captured SS man, "You bastard! I'll make mashed potatoes of your Friedrichstrasse!"

Taken together, the film is both historically accurate in many cases and always a real hoot even when it isn't, achieving at once both a dramatic impact and high comedy, a difficult juxtaposition. The uniforms and medals of both sides are exact down to the very last detail generally, including the medals, and the final scenes of Goring depict him wearing German paratrooper's combat fatigues!

The pre-suicide scenes in the Berlin bunker show the viewer a raving Hitler ranting, "I'll defend Berlin! The Americans and Russians will clash, and I'll win the war!" which is what the Nazis actually believed and what both the Russians and Allies feared as well; both also expected the other to make a peace-saving deal in 1945 that would rescue the Nazi regime, just as Stalin and Hitler had done in 1939 to crush Poland between them.

In another scene, we hear Eva telling Adolf, "All your generals are pigs! It's vulgar to die a mistress," and he answers, "Yes, we will be married." We see, too, the flooding of the Berlin subway on Hitler's orders that results in the drowning of thousands of Germans taking shelter there, and the final negotiations after Hitler's death between Chukov and the last Chief of the German General Staff, Gen. Hans Krebs that were rejected in favor of unconditional surrender. Thus ended the one-day Chancellorship of Dr. Josef Gobbels as Hitler's successor, and both he and Gen. Krebs commit suicide.

The Red Banner is hoisted over the Reichstag as the Communist May Day holiday is duly celebrated in the fallen Nazi capital Then the victorious soldiers literally race down the building's steps to the airfield where Stalin's plane---in a scene stolen right out of Leni Riefenstahl's epochal 1934 Nazi film Triumph of the Will---makes a divine-like descent from a clear blue sky.

The soldiers and freed POWs from all nations mob him, but from a respectful distance---all the while chanting, "Glory to Great Stalin!" He replies calmly and quietly, "This victory cost us a lot. Never forget the sacrifices made for peace! Happiness to all nations! Peace and happiness to all of you, my friends!" and thus this fascinating saga concludes, but the overall presentation presents a slide show as well that fleshes out the dramatic production in more factual details. We learn that the Stalin character was portrayed by Soviet actor Mikhail Gelovani, a fellow Georgian who played the dictator a dozen times in various films over his career. We are also told how the official Red Army battle cry during the war became "For the Motherland! For Stalin!" thus linking the fate of the nation to the person of the formerly much-feared and always remote Stalin.

The film was originally released for public viewing in two parts in 1950 when the Korean War threatened to turn the Cold War hot, and was seen by a record 38 million Soviet citizens. The names of the three main Red Army men whose stories we follow made up part of the many nationalities of the-then USSR: the Mongol Jusup, Kostya the Ukrainian, and Kanturia, a Georgian. Thus was soldier Stalin also revealed as politician Stalin.

Reportedly---according to director Chiaureli---when Stalin himself first screened the fllm, it naturally brought tears to his eyes, especially his non-existent flight to conquered Berlin, and he murmured, "If only I had done it, and really gone to Berlin!" The director died in 1974, but now we can all see his most famous film---and the grandest Stalinist movie of them all---just the way he, Stalin, and their country's citizens did in 1950.

THE FALL OF BERLIN: THE Restored Soviet WW2 Epic
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