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It seems to me that there is a metaphor embedded somewhere in Downfall, transforming what is at first glance just another World War II film into a provocative account of the final days of the Nazi party, anchored by a genuinely great performance from Bruno Ganz, who plays Adolph Hitler as a man that seems hunched over and sickly, his voice rough and haggard. The withering emaciation of ruthless and unchecked power makes him appear like a man whose soul is corroded away and his body denigrated, whose ideologies have obviated compassion and understanding and set him on the course toward total annihilation.
Occasionally he effects a moment of warmth and affection, as if the evil is the corruption of all that’s good and true within him, but his obsession with conquest (or, at least, holding Berlin from the oncoming Russians) drags him down again into a dark place within his soul. At times he swings wildly between a morbid fascination with suicide and the hopes that he might survive or that his dreams might outlive him. In the moment, facing an uncertain future in which Hitler’s ardent and fevered dream is slowly dismantled, perhaps it seems evident that his followers are lost in the quixotic power of his cult of personality. But it is those who choose to lay down weapons and outlive the war that can fathom a world without Hitler in it, and it is that cornerstone upon which the reconstruction of Germany can begin and the Nazi dream of restoration and victory can die. Hitler’s ideology may have run deep, but Berlin looks weary and swollen with fear due to the weight of the bombings that it has had to endure.
The film opens with the hiring of Traudl Jung, Hitler’s secretary, and explores the time that she remains with Hitler during the final twelve days of his life. The underground bunker is its own world, so intimate and enclosed that the audience becomes familiar with its inner workings. The walls are as drab and gray as the German uniforms, and Russian bombs falling outside seem to be about as common as passing cars – it is easy to forget their destructive power until they nearly kill.
We are introduced to Eva Braun and Joseph and Magda Goebbels (Hitler loves his little Joe) and most of Hitler’s inner circle. Many of these people are so far gone that they are irretrievable from Hitler’s insane doctrine, but others are more sensible to the realities of their situation. I suppose that it’s an artistic choice to make Hitler’s death so unsatisfying, while other suicides feel so graphic and brutal and inhumane. There are some moments in the film when German officers kill their entire families, and those are the moments when the film is its most effecting.
Bruno Ganz also played Professor Gohl in The Reader, a part that eventually became the philosophical backbone of the film. He affected a man for whom the evil acts of the Third Reich weren’t merely ghosts of the past and in so doing questioned how such ideology can be embraced. Downfall does not attempt to answer that question, though it does show Hitler rousing the most darkly parts of the human imagination. Since it evokes the final days of Hitler’s reign and not the beginning, at this point in the film the minds of Hitler’s followers are already poisoned.
Yet Downfall as a German film offers a self-critical evaluation. Maybe it’s strange to see Hitler as the center of a film. Maybe it’s like staring directly into the sun. He’s evil, and that’s that. But the truly compassionate people in this film are those humane individuals who may not be monsters but nevertheless act as enablers – they are victims of their own infatuation with untenable power. They are, in effect, standing too close to the sun to see what is so morally corrupt about their actions. A kid may pick up a gun in order to fight for an ideology he doesn’t understand and yet spare the gun when it is all over. This is the beginning of the paradox of living in a post-World War II German society, where those who are at peace may have been witness to or the cause of atrocities during the war. It’s also a reminder to all people about how we must guard ours own minds against invasive ideology. The film is book-ended with interviews from the real Traudl Jung, in which she gives both a final confession and a warning: youth is no excuse for what we do.
Watching this film, it’s almost impossible to believe that Oliver Hirschbiegel also directed the truly awful The Invasion. Maybe he saw some parallels in the mindless conformity between the two films. Or maybe not, since The Invasion doesn’t really seem to have a point (as the conformity led to world peace). Downfall is Hirschbiegel at his best and humanity at its worst.
Oliver Hirschbiegel (director) / Bernd Eichinger (screenplay)
CAST: Bruno Ganz … Adolf Hitler
Alexandra Maria Lara … Traudl Junge
Juliane Köhler … Eva Braun
Thomas Kretschmann … SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein
Christian Redl … Generaloberst Alfred Jodl
Corinna Harfouch … Magda Goebbels
Ulrich Matthes … Joseph Goebbels
Heino Ferch … Albert Speer
André Hennicke … SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke
Ulrich Noethen … Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler
Christian Berkel … Ernst-Günther Schenck
Rolf Kanies … Hans Krebs