Downfall

March, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Oliver Hirschbiegel

Starring:Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Juliane Köhler

Traudl Junge, the youngest of Adolf Hitler’s four private secretaries during WWII, has not been shy about discussing her impressions of The Fuhrer. She published her memoirs three years ago and then agreed to be extensively interviewed for a documentary released that same year entitled, “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary”, available on DVD. Now German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, (born a dozen years after the war) presents a highly detailed examination of the last 12 days of the Third Reich which opens with a quote from Ms. Junge’s documentary presented on a completely black screen. If the director’s intention was to “fill in the blanks” with what follows, he’s achieved his goal in spades. Whether it merits your attention depends largely upon the level of interest you bring to any attempt to decipher the mind and motives of incarnated evil.

Downfall’s  largely unknown actors portray high-ranking German generals and Nazi officials who clearly realize the war’s imminent end, but who nevertheless cower before Hitler’s increasingly irrational rants, keeping up a ludicrous pretense of normality even as they send young German boys out onto the streets of Berlin in a futile effort to fend off a rapidly encircling Russian army. Juliane Kohler, (Nowhere In Africa) plays Eva Braun as a rather vacuous party girl, trying desperately to perk up Hitler’s inner circle; with the exception of Bruno Ganz, (the Swiss-born actor from Zurich who plays Hitler) the rest of the cast are strangers to U.S. audiences. 

Ganz, (brilliant in Wings of Desire but known to American audiences for his far less challenging roles in melodramas like The Boys From Brazil and the re-make of The Manchurian Candidate) delivers a mesmerizing Hitler; from hunched shoulders to spastically twitching right hand, he doesn’t so much impersonate as embody the degenerate dictator who barricaded himself and his staff in an underground bunker in the heart of Berlin until committing suicide two days before Germany’s surrender in May, 1945. Mouthing loathsome pronouncements about Bolshevism and world Jewry, Ganz’s Hitler terrifies his subordinates with megalomaniacal rants while dispatching hopelessly irrational orders to German armies that no longer exist, then slips into nauseously sentimental concern for his clerical staff and Shepard dog. The relentless energy of this world-class performance sucks the life out of final portion of the movie, which tracks the collapse of the German government after Hitler’s highly personal “final solution”. 

Much has been made in the German press about the director’s sympathetic depiction of Hitler’s entourage during this period, charging that it gives Nazism a human face. Hirschbiegel and his actors do indeed supply characters with fully developed personas, but the result is damning, rather than exculpatory; that rational people could so enthusiastically choose to become caught up in this monstrous evil makes them even more individually reprehensible. Albert Speer’s obsequious, well-bred flattery, Joseph Goebbels’ squeamish participation in the murders of his own children by his wife Magda--lest they be forced to live in a Communist world with no Hitler to defend them-- even Traudl Junge’s final voiceover admission of belated personal responsibility all serve to denigrate each of these historical individuals more thoroughly than any attempt to portray them as sub-human freaks ever could.

With solid cinematography and perfectly realized set design to enhance the impact of Ganz’s stunning performance, Downfall provides an aura of nihilism as bleak and hopeless as the events which spawned it. This is terrific movie-making, but harrowing movie-watching.      

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