Downfall is just shy of a masterpiece; a film of such unflinching power and honesty that at first, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. It’s a film wholly lacking an axe-grinding agenda; moved only by the desire to establish a tone and relay the facts. It would be silly to debate whether or not this film “humanizes” Hitler, or even “takes a stand” on the Holocaust, as if sane people needed to debate these issues further. No one not motivated by unreasonable hatred would attempt to defend either Hitler or the murder of millions, and this film has moved beyond trying to convince anyone that’s it worth continuing the discussion. Sound, reliable history has long ruled on National Socialism, and any piece of art still wading through the morality of it all deserves to be left behind and discarded as valueless. Simply put, the Third Reich, as defined and ruled by Adolf Hitler, was the most repugnant, coldhearted killing machine of the 20th century, and while needing to be understood, holds firm as the personification of true horror. Now that we dispensed with the obvious, we can proceed with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s stunning account of those final days beneath the crumbling German capital.
Outside of a brief prologue where we meet Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s final secretary (who’s story, one could say, this is), we rarely glimpse life beyond Hitler’s bunker, except of course to establish the onslaught of the Red Army and the utter destruction of Berlin. It is appropriate that this film not attempt to tell the whole story (whatever that might be), for at that point, it would be succumbing to convention, and below ground is where we belong. The sounds of death help create the tension, for as the guns and shouts become more intense, we know that full surrender is nearly at hand. To contrast the madness, the remaining members of the Nazi government live out their final hours in obscene denial; laughing, singing, and dancing with all the spirit of having occupied Moscow. Alcohol and excitement flow with the revelry of a New Year’s bash, which is the best possible way to convey the diseased nature of the Nazi mind.
But few cling to the last shred of hope more than Hitler himself, who continues to consult his maps long after they hold any relevance. Long dead troops are put into position; cities and towns now completely under Allied control are discussed as if they’re fighting back enemy guns; and generals long removed from the sting of battle are cursed for their supreme incompetence. During these desperate moments it is important to convey Hitler’s near insanity, but as played by the Oscar-worthy Bruno Ganz, he is never a cartoon. After all, a cartoon can be easily dismissed; this flesh and blood creature had power, impact, and even widespread appeal. At every point, we can see the man, regardless of how we might feel about him. Anyone can demonstrate Hitler’s belligerence; just let him hang himself with his own words. True art (and talent) strives for nuance and complexity, despite every temptation to do the opposite.
When critics speak of Ganz’s portrayal, they often refer to the belief that when faced with evil, our noses should be rubbed in its entrails so as not to forget obvious distinctions. If a brute like Hitler is not given horns, stripes, or other physical reminders of his sinful nature, then it is assumed that we are but one step from asking for sainthood. Such an idea is patently false, of course, but art is rarely left alone to its own devices, as it is assumed that unless it has social or moral uplift as a stated goal, it just might appeal to our desire for mindless entertainment. Even worse, they would say, is the failure to make sanctimonious pronouncements and chest-thumping judgments. Thankfully, the director has chosen to emulate Altman rather than Spielberg, letting those involved interact without showing the strings from above. There is method of course, only these people make decisions, act rashly, plan, and consider fading alternatives in the face of annihilation without the filmmaker’s “approval.” The audience surely knows the end result (perhaps even some of the details), but all is played as if for the first time, which is a testament to the maturity of the approach. Making the familiar new again is one of the most difficult and admirable achievements of the cinematic arts. Hirschbiegel sweeps us along with the poise of an old pro.
While no one involved with Downfall is less than stellar (right down to the production designer), I must single out Magda Goebbels, played with an icy fearlessness by Corinna Harfouch. By turns pathetic and strangely defiant, her consistency and dedication reveal much more than the effectiveness of brainwashing. Her willingness to commit atrocities, even though on a smaller scale than the SS, helps us to understand the ascendancy of Hitler himself. Only if “ordinary” folks are capable of great crimes can a state like Nazi Germany hope to exist. As we watch Frau Goebbels methodically murder her children (first a dose of a “sleeping potion,” then the forced crunch of a cyanide capsule), we are revolted, but also awe-struck by the absolute lack of hesitation or remorse. Was Magda also an inhuman monster, a woman with a brain so diseased that she was doomed from birth? That, of course, would be the easy explanation and would allow us to wash our hands of such evil. In reality, she was a strong, intelligent woman swept up in the despair of her times, which history has proven to be a powerful current indeed. To quote Noah Cross from Chinatown, “See, Mr. Gitts, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of… anything.” Yes, even you, Mr. & Mrs. America.
The frenzy of the final hours is so captivating that notions of good and evil simply don’t apply. We witness the marriage ceremony between Hitler and Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), the blood-soaked amputations of dying soldiers, assorted suicides and bile-soaked recriminations, and even last-minute hopes and pathetic dreams. Through it all, we see that while many attempted to escape, loyalty to a dying regime stood firm even in the face of Hitler’s ultimate capitulation. Despite being completely cut off from the outside world, the ego struggles and transfers of power continue, almost as if the participants expect to set up shop in a crumbled government building down the street. The camera darts, bombs explode, bullets fly, and through it all, military personnel casually discuss blowing their brains out as if exchanging restaurant suggestions. It’s a whirlwind of chaos; capturing the last gasps of a people as effectively as I’ve ever seen. We literally feel the thousand-year Reich imploding beneath our feet. And while the entire world should wipe its brow at Hitler’s defeat, the film is so engaging that for a moment, we forget we should be rooting against those we see on screen. But this isn’t a football game, it’s a history lesson; only without the sensation that we’re eating our spinach.
After John Cusack’s awkward offer of lemonade to the weasel-like Hitler in the otherwise compelling Max, this is a necessary correction. What’s more, the original German brings what English language actors never could. Because most of the world won’t recognize these performers, we are better able to accept them as figures from the past, rather than celebrities playing dress-up. In the end, films like this make me realize why I love the cinema and continue to venture to darkened theaters for guidance, joy, and enlightenment. And Downfall – unquestionably one of the best of the year — deserves to be remembered as long as the medium itself.