Sobering and somber, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall comes close to being the film it wants to be without quite getting there, owing to a certain literal-mindedness on the director’s part and a screenplay by producer Bernd Eichenger (who, incidentally, also produced Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s legendary seven-and-a-half-hour Our Hitler: A Film from Germany) that tries to take in altogether too much.
But even so, this may be the best film ever made about Adolf Hitler (played here by Bruno Ganz, Wings of Desire). It’s certainly proved to be one of the most controversial, for the simple reason that it attempts to show Hitler as a human being, rather than a larger-than-life monster. That concept sets off an immediate, strong reaction in a lot of people, because it can carry with it the misconception that a humanized Hitler becomes a sympathetic Hitler.
That’s not what’s going on here. Hirschbiegel and Eichenger — with the help of a blistering performance by Ganz — simply strip away the myth from the monster, laying bare the utter banality of his evil.
The screenplay is based on two books, Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Feist and Until the Final Hour by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller. Feist’s book provides the film with its historical perspective, and the Junge/Muller book gives it its more human side. Junge (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) was actually there. She was hired as Hitler’s secretary in 1942 (depicted in the only scene in the film that doesn’t take place during the fall of Berlin), and much of what we see is through her eyes.
There’s an immediate creepiness about the 1942 prologue that stems from its essential normalcy. Today we’re aware of Hitler’s monstrous deeds, and so it’s disorienting to be confronted with a rather drab, ordinary little man who isn’t ranting and raving in the manner we expect.
No sooner does the film move forward to those last days, however, than a different image begins to emerge. Hitler has turned into a hunched-over parody of himself, his palsied left hand constantly twitching behind his back. He seems defeated from the moment we see him, but his megalomania and outright insanity is always lurking just beneath the surface. On some level, we sense — as do some of the characters in the film — that Hitler knows it’s all over for him and his Reich, but that doesn’t prevent him from ranting about (real and imagined) betrayals, moving nonexistent armies across maps and issuing orders that cannot be carried out.
But Hitler’s mindset is not the entire crux of this complex film, which is really just as concerned, and possibly more so, with his inner circle’s reaction to impending doom. These reactions are often more disturbing than Hitler’s rages, especially in the case of Dr. Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes, The Ninth Day) and, worse, Frau Goebbels (German TV actress Corinna Harfouch). The latter’s cool detachment and adherence to the party line (“I do not want to live in a world without National Socialism”) plays like a particularly vile variant on the monster mother in either version of The Manchurian Candidate. The sequence where she blandly murders her six children, rather than see them grow up in a world without Hitler, is utterly chilling.
Yet this is also where Hirschbiegel lets his literalness get the better of him, since he insists on showing each of the six murders. That may have been the bravest approach, since audiences are invariably squeamish about the depiction of children being killed, but the sequence would, I think, have been more powerful if it showed less than it does. And in other cases, such as the pathetic depiction of Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler, Nowhere in Africa) as a woman who is literally dancing on the edge of destruction, knowing the truth while pretending she doesn’t, the film is content to take a more subtle approach.
What is perhaps most surprising is the film’s insistence on not letting off the hook the people who allowed all this to happen. Goebbels remarks that the German people gave the Nazis their mandate and, as such, brought this on themselves. And the very basis of the film, from the standpoint of Junge — who didn’t allow herself to see beyond the boundaries of her job — is to make the people implicitly guilty for giving into Hitler’s racist and nationalist fear-mongering in the first place. What is especially disconcerting here is the recognition that we are still far from beyond this same approach to controlling “the masses” today.
And that, I think, is what ultimately makes Downfall such a deeply disturbing film — and such an important one. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and some nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke