Downfall (2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel)


One of the most universally praised films of the German cinema since the 1980s is the stark drama Downfall, an mournful, angry and apologetic picture (like Das Boot before it) about Hitler’s last days in his bunker as Germany faded into defeat at the close of the war; we watch Hitler, his last-minute wife and many of his associates — some of whom attempt to talk sense into him and to convince him to negotiate with the Allies — deflect, run away, or kill themselves out of misplaced loyalty or just resignation. Hitler, Goebbels and their families finally do the same. The film is a monumental undertaking, a movie willing to work at a level of self-contained importance that would paralyze some filmmakers; director Oliver Herschbiegel is up to the task. His film takes some cues from the amazing documentary Blind Spot, which was occupied in full by an interview with Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge (played sympathetically here by Alexandria Maria Laura) as well as numerous other hard sources, so much of what he presents is as close to accurate as possible. He is thus actually able to bring enough of a clinical eye to the movie that it feels like truth, simultaneously retaining the sensitivity necessary to give it vitality.

It’s still an unavoidably somber, sometimes chilly movie. From a technical standpoint, the actors, research, and direction are all impeccable. Bruno Ganz, the great Swiss actor who lit up Wings of Desire, is easily the best Hitler I’ve ever seen; at times Downfall becomes his one-man show. He is chillingly believable. Ganz and Herschbiegel show the Fuhrer as horrifyingly human as can be imagined — witness his weary sympathy toward Traudl, who’s applying for a job, in the very first scene and then again toward his death — while never turning a blind eye to the atrocities of his leadership, probably the most difficult balance to strike in a fictionalized account.

The film has a detached and minimalistic feeling, but it’s probably necessary; even-handed, demythologizing, it attempts to present all facets of the final days and does an incredible job of making them real and present to the audience. This is a sophisticated, multilayered, complicated story — and nearly all of it is true. Knee-jerk reactions have no place here, nor does any glamorous glossing-over of horror in any dark corner. The claustrophobia is nightmarish, infectious; for the two and a half hours of the running time, you are there. It’s not really casual viewing, and it helps immeasurably to have read something like William Shirer’s account of the Third Reich, which is heavily devoted to the author’s own experiences having been around Hitler during the early years of the war. The film resonates more to one already intimately familiar with its subject matter.

As such, it’s a cold historical presentation more than a movie, never attaining the passion of the greatest films about the Holocaust or the war at large scale, but I have the feeling that any additional weight or sentiment would kill its vast, intelligent sense of reality. While it’s certainly a competent, well-designed and attractive film, its primary debit is inevitably its pedestrian, telefilm-like visual style — but even this is perhaps justifiable, suggesting that to make anything more cinematic of this ugly story of an ugly man and his cult of personality would be hideous. While the movie is well edited, it also is less concise than it should be; several short scenes frequently make the same or similar points in the interest of accuracy, and some of the constant moving within and without of the action in the bunker is tiresome. (These, again, are problems curiously shared with Das Boot, which in most respects is a very different film about a different world.)

None of this is to say that Downfall is absent of emotion. It simply can’t be, not with this much weight around it. It’s hard to convey the complicated evil of Adolf Hitler in two and a half hours, especially when Junge’s account is heavily concentrated upon how much she said she didn’t know in her early twenties, but his flippant anger and disturbing, self-regarding attitudes toward race, the war and the civilians of Germany are obvious and invade the depths of Ganz’s eyes; the film doesn’t allow us to forgive him because of his frailty, it merely implies the pathetic nature of an abhorrent force defeated. And we need little context to appreciate the murderous immensity of a Joseph Goebbels (played by Ulrich Matthes, eerily well-cast) and his programmed wife Magda. That horrifying sequence in which she murders her own children as he stands by the door is heartbreaking. In a curious way, so is the naive enthusiasm for dancing and denial of Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler, nearly as haunting as Ganz) while the world collapses around her. What’s never heartbreaking, only telling, is Hitler’s own false kindliness and non-heroic battle to his own ends — pious toward his own cause to the very end, he is such a man all we feel at the moment of his (inevitably unsatisfying) dramatized death is a strange relief.

[Expanded from a review posted in 2007.]

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