I finally got around to watching this dark and gripping 2004 German drama about the last days of Hitler and the Third Reich. Realistic, hard-hitting, impeccably crafted, meticulously researched and detailed, Downfall is easily one of the best historical war films I’ve seen.
As the movie began, I wondered briefly if I popped on the commentary DVD by mistake. It turned out that the film was bookended by the snippets of real-life interviews with Traudl Junge, who, as a young woman, was hired as Hitler’s secretary in 1942 and witnessed his last days in the bunker beneath Berlin in 1945. In the final clip, old Traudl talks unsparingly of her younger self, saying that she should have known more about the crimes of the Nazi regime. But at the time, she was completely awed by her powerful employer and taken with his displays of fatherly kindness towards her, even as she was watching his later mental decay and brutal outbursts of rage. In the movie, she’s portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara, an actress with an appealing wide-eyed face and naturally warm and sympathetic presence, which further complicates the audience’s response to her situation (not necessarily a bad thing).
Occasionally, the movie shifts the focus onto the rubble-strewn streets of Berlin to show the last attempts at resistance and the suffering of the civilian population. However most of the film takes place inside the claustrophobic, harshly lit interiors of the bunker where Hitler and his inner circle try to stage a futile last stand while the Russian army is closing in on the city. We get quick sketches of Hitler’s acolytes and generals and their varying responses to the imminent collapse. Some, like Hitler’s mistress and last-minute wife Eva Braun, try to lose themselves in partying and forced manic fun. Some are scrambling to make a deal with the Allies. Some, like Joseph and Magda Goebbels, remain fanatical believers till the end and can’t see the life without National Socialism, either for themselves or their many children. Downfall walks a fine line depicting them as human but not necessarily sympathetic.
At the centre of it all is Bruno Ganz as Hitler, portraying a tyrant who has become untethered from reality and is vacillating between depression and delusion, refusing to listen to bad news, moving the non-existent troops on the map, and screaming at his minions. It must not have been an easy role to accept, yet seen from a more detached point of view of actor’s craft, it’s an undeniably fascinating challenge to take on.
At the time of its release, I’ve read a few discussions on whether a more human and multi-dimensional portrayal of Hitler is ever a good idea, but personally I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend that Hitler got dropped on earth by the aliens from Planet Evil. And while Hitler shows kindness and consideration towards a few chosen individuals, the movie never stops highlighting his evil convictions and hammering in the shocking callousness towards the human suffering on a grander scale, including the German people themselves. Downfall also serves as a sickening snapshot of the Nazi malaise; Hitler was mad and bad but he did not create the Third Reich all by himself. The scenes with young children and teenagers professing undying loyalty and devotion to the regime are particularly chilling.
P.S. I also watched the behind-the-scenes documentary afterwards and apparently the film was partly shot in St Petersburg to recreate the war-torn Berlin. To this Russian who grew up with the echoes of the Great Patriotic War all around me, it’s both surreal and weirdly heartening.
P.P.S. I’m sorry to say that, after watching countless Hitler Rants parodies on YouTube, I just couldn’t suppress a giggle during the original movie scene. Damn you internet for ruining the intense drama.