On Saturday, it will be 60 years to the day since Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun committed suicide in their Bunker near the Reichstag. It seems fitting that, as the last survivors of one of the bloodiest periods in human history enter their twilight years we are delivered a film that actually deals with those final days in an objective manner.
Past movie incarnations have been bland and unrealistic. Der Fuhrer we see on television and in the movies is more of a caricature of evil. He has no depth, no substance, no soul. However evil a person is, they still contain the qualities of other people. They still feel affection, show love, have hopes and fears. Hitler is no different, and Downfall sets about trying to accurately depict Hitlers final days in a way we've never seen before.
The story is told predominately from the perspective of Traudl Junge, Hitlers final stenographer. The film opens in 1942, as half a dozen giddy young women wait for an interview and the chance, to not only meet their idol but, to become a part of his inner circle. The scene profoundly illustrates just how revered this man was. He was loved, and not just by the Germans. He had a charm that won over nations and world leaders. This is a man who, before the war, was viewed as a template for a better tomorrow; trumpeted by American Presidents and British Prime Ministers. There was clearly more to him than just evil.
Following Junges successful application we fastforward to April 1945. The Russians are only 20 miles from central Berlin and the daily aerial bombing is now mixed in with artillery bombardment. Berlin, the heart of Hitlers brave new World, is in ruins. As Hitler surveys the beautiful models of "new" Berlin, with his friend and architect Albert Speer, he remarks on how much easier the reconstruction of Berlin will be, now that the Russians have demolished the city for them. It is a simple piece of detached wit, and yet its delivery seems to offer more of an insight into Hitler than any other film I have seen.
Downfall is as much a story about the end of National Socialism as it is the demise of Hitler, and through some excellent performances the many faces of Nazism are brought to life. From Himmler to Goebbels, the look, personalities and mannerisms of all of he characters are superbly reconstructed.
As the plight of the Nazi cause becomes more desperate, the lives of those in the bunker become more surreal. Conversations about how best to commit suicide become common place, while Eva Braun continues to throw wild parties in the ruins of the Reichstag, even as the shells explode outside.
Hitler, whose deterioration is now well advanced maintains his belief that the might of Germanys armies will come to their rescue. His final realisation that what armies the Nazis have left are crippled and in disarray is haunting. His rants are renowned as being fierce, but as a beaten man, blaming everyone from his Generals to the German people, he is truly pitiful.
The endgame is well over an hour long and to see it from the perspective of the losing side is so rare that it brings the horrors of war home in far more realistic fashion than any movie I have seen. There is no reprieve here. You know that many of these people are going to die. Are they all evil Nazis? Were they all just following orders? Are the civilians as guilty as their masters? They are questions that have dogged the last 60 years and no answer can ever bring comfort. In the end it is hard not to feel compassion for many of the German soldiers and their families, as they choose their fate.
For others though, it is hard to show mercy. As Magda Goebbels, so obsessed with Hitler and his ideals professes that she cannot live in a World without National Socialism, she decides that her family must be spared that future too. As she murders her young children, I could only feel a sense of sorrow that these innocents had to die for one womans obsession. This whole section further illustrates the captivating effect that Hitler had on people, particularly women. If there is one flaw in the movie it is that the portrayal of Magda and Joseph Goebbels is somewhat one sided. Magda is painted as the evil one, obsessed with the Hitler ideal. Only at her end does she appear remorseful. Joseph meanwhile, is painted as a somewhat weak and tormented man. It is a minor flaw in an otherwise flawless movie.
Downfall is a tremendous piece of work. It drags a little in the middle, but still remains riveting, purely because we have never had such a stark and realistic view of the War from "the bad guys" perspective. Bruno Ganz is a revelation and I can only hope that this movie gets exposure outside of Europe. It isn't anti-Semitic to like this movie. It doesn't paint Hitler and his minions as "nice" guys, it purely illustrates the desperation of war.
For me I came away with a stronger sense that the only way we can prevent such things from happening again is to try to understand what drives people to commit such hateful crimes. Rather than pigeon-hole people as evil, we need to get to the heart of the problem. In this time of increased fear of terrorism that is driving people to war, maybe that message is more important than ever.
In summary, I recommend everyone to see this movie. It is quite simply, the most important movie to ever come out of Germany and possibly the most significant war movie ever made.
Downfall - 9.5/10
Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz)
Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara)
Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch)
Joseph Goebbells (Ulrich Matthes)
Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler)
Albert Speer (Heino Ferch)
Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel)