Downfall

This gripping Second World War tragedy breaks German taboos and portrays Hitler as an all-too-human monster.

By James Rogan

Into the tired, triumphalist genre of the Second World War film, director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writer-producer Bernd Eichinger’s new film Downfall comes as a violent burst of clarity. Only a handful of German films (notably, GW Pabst’s The Last Act and Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot) have dared to portray the experience and suffering of the Germans during the war. Downfall sets a new precedent, weaving together several first person accounts of the final days of the Third Reich, inviting us to witness Germany’s collapse at uncomfortable proximity.

1945: Hitler (Bruno Ganz) has retreated underground with his staff, the Russians have surrounded Berlin and are slowly strangling the city. Children and poorly equipped militia are fighting the Russian tanks in the streets, while Hitler, refusing to surrender, condemns the German people “to drown in their own blood” as a punishment for their defeat. Much of the action is seen from the perspective of Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, a jittery young woman who brings a hint of warmth to the otherwise unforgiving gaze of the film few films have pulled off such a visceral portrayal of a war, especially from a civilian’s point of view. Eichinger’s masteful script pulls no punches and offers no excuses. The action begins with Junge being woken up by the rattling of her water glass as the Russian artillery starts to pound Berlin and it does not let up until Hitler’s body is burning in a ditch. Hirschbiegel tips a wink to Spielberg with the opening device of the water glass (taken from Jurassic Park) and his debt to the hand-held techniques perfected on Saving Private Ryan is evident throughout. But Downfall rises above its American predecessor because, unlike Spielberg, Hirschbiegel never compromises the action for cotton-ball moralising. His interest is in humanity in extremis, warts and all. As a war film, Downfall is closer in spirit to Apocalypse Now, where good and evil disappear into a vortex of bombs and insanity, and it captures a similar decadence, showing the Nazi officers resorting to drunken orgies to cope with the imminent collapse of their way of life.

Perhaps the greatest success of the film is reclaiming Hitler as a tragic antihero. His downfall is set against his dream of a German empire, a vision for a new world that slipped through his grasp. Bruno Ganz’s impeccable portrait of Hitler captures the fading image of a great leader (we meet him when, like Julius Caesar or King Lear, his achievements are but a memory), and the frailties of the man; the uncontrollable shake of his left hand, the drooping shoulders and the almost drunken walk of defeat. It is a remarkable balancing act; there is the famous Hitler, the satanic over-reacher, a product of his own mythology, railing against the Jews, his generals and his people, but there is also a softer Hitler, the devoted friend who dotes on his dog, treats his staff with a fatherly tenderness and plays with his colleagues’ children. The root of evil in this Hitler is in his ambition, in his thirst for power and in his dreams of a master race, not in his heart, which seems as affectionate and as weak as any other.
 
Ganz’s performance sets the standard (the roles are faultlessly cast with some of Germany’s finest actors) and no character, no matter how odious, ever lapses into stereotype. The integrity of the acting, the use of source lighting and the frenetic photography all combine to give the immediacy of documentary, but the film never substitutes technical bravura for artistic depth. It is about the downfall of a remarkable and horrific civilisation and it lays bare much of the psychology that went into making it. The religious fervour that drives the fanaticism of the Nazis is caught in some telling moments of iconography. There is the last supper where Hitler preaches, like an inverted Christ, that “compassion is a primal sin”. And, in the most sinister scene of the film, Goebbels’ wife gives her six children poison, as if it were holy communion, to ensure they will not live on in a world without national socialism.   

More than just making a great Second World War film, Hirschbiegel and Eichinger have created that rare thing in the cinema, a profound and compelling tragedy. The Nazi government set the benchmark for civilised evil in the last century, handily making all the questionable actions of the other Western powers seem in comparison like the daily activities of Little Bo Peep. Hitler has become demonised, but then the devil never pulled off an act of such calculated evil as the industrial extermination of the Jews. Downfall is an important reminder that Hitler was no demon, but a man driven by a terrible ambition, and his followers were just people who believed single-mindedly in the righteousness of his crusade. It may help us sleep at night imagining him as an inhuman monster, but if we are to avoid another holocaust we would do well to remember that his monstrosity was all too human.
Peter Kaneen posted 8 July 2007 (02:15:28)
Hi There, I was hoping to be able to make contact with Oliver Hirschbiegel or an associate, in order to discuss a prospective concept as an antitheis to 'Downfall'. I'm thinking 'An alternative hypothesis' or similar. I believe that my idea has never been broached! My inspiration comes for Oliver Hischbiegel's unsurpassable masterpiece 'Downfall' and his depiction of the decline of the Reich. This has to be the most flawlessly superb historical depiction of the end of history's most insane conflict. A movie that will never be bettered in terms of brilliance for script, acting and 'enthrallability'! Are you able to put me in touch with OH's office?? Kind Regards, Peter Kaneen (Australia) 0427 855 208 03 9395 5292
Rudolf Rahn posted 10 October 2007 (15:52:19)
The film was excellent, but of course mrs. Junge was threatened in some way to do not say anything good about the Fuhrer, also the words that suppossed Hitler and Dr. Goebbels sayed about the people of Germany, that they deserved what was happened to them, it was a completely lye, if it was something Hitler love in this world was precissely his Country and his people, of course if the film wouldn't show Hitler satanized, never would have the permission to be produced in any theater in the world.
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