Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel , is a carefully researched dramatization of the last days in the Fuhrerbunker. Nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film, it is based on a book by Joachim Fest about the experiences of Traudl Junge, Hitlerís longtime secretary. This is not the first movie ever made about the death agonies of the Third Reich, but it is perhaps the most meticulous, and it takes an interesting and novel approach.
Downfall is as more about the people around Hitler than it is about Hitler himself. The movie opens (and closes) with footage of the real Traudl Junge reflecting on her years as Hitlerís secretary. The story gets underway with Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), along with several other girls, interviewing for the job at Hitlerís headquarters in East Prussia in 1942. Junge, in awe of the Fuhrer, is thrilled when she is chosen.
The next scene fast forwards to 1945. Germany is in ruins and the Red Army is closing in. Hitlerís inner circle, in varying degrees of denial and fear, is preparing for the end. Hirschbiegel alternates between the chaos and destruction of the Berlin street battles and the tightly ordered, claustrophobic world of the bunker to weave an intense, vivid, and at times surreal vision of the end of one of historyís great tragedies.
The role of Hitler is played by Bruno Ganz, a talented Swiss actor who has clearly made a close study of Hitlerís mannerisms. Ganz is a little older than Hitler at the time of his death, but this doesnít prevent him from delivering a convincing and powerful performance. Moving between self pity, delusion, and screaming rage, Ganz is utterly believable. But although Ganz captures Hitlerís appearance and behavior, he never seems to reveal anything about his true character. This is to some extent deliberate. He is kept off screen much of the time, and Bernd Eichingerís screenplay has Eva Braun suggesting that the man is essentially unknowable.
Much of Downfall is concerned with the people around Hitler, and here lies the movieís greatest strength and greatest weakness. The greatest strength is the vivid, detailed, and at times unforgettable performances that Hirschbiegel elicits from his cast. The greatest weakness is that at times, some of these characters come of as being more sympathetic than they really were.
Ulrich Matthes delivers a creepy, reptilian performance as Josef Goebbels. The scene of Frau Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) poisoning her children is enough to make the viewerís skin crawl. Ulrich Noethen does a brief, perfect turn as Himmler, wondering if he should give Eisenhower the Nazi salute or shake his hand. Juliane Kohlerís Eva Braun is cheerful, vacuous, and utterly oblivious to the situation around her. Next to these, almost anyone is going to look good by comparison.
But Hirschbiegel spends far too much time on Christian Berkel as SS Doctor Schenck, bravely treating the wounded, scrounging for medical supplies, and discovering that maybe Naziism wasnít such a good thing after all. No man wearing an SS uniform can ever elicit much in the way of sympathy. Alexandra Maria Laraís Traudl Junge is apparently meant to be somewhat sympathetic, but mostly just comes across as ignorant and wilfully blind. At best, she resembles a devotee of some religious cult, completely in thrall to a self appointed messiah while everyone around her is drinking the poison Kool-Aid.
Hirschbiegel also does an excellent job with those scenes that take place above ground. The battle scenes are quite good, although the advancing Russians mostly arenít seen. Thereís a real sense of disintegration tinged with madness, and it serves to intensify the madness and claustrophobia in the Bunker. The reach of Hitlerís power is shrinking quickly, but within it he remains dangerous to the end. He can no longer hold off his enemies, but he can vent his rage on and destroy any of his followers he can still reach.
Prior to the release of Downfall, some people expressed the fear that it would humanize Hitler. They need not have worried. Hirschbiegel never tries to make Hitler sympathetic. For all Ganzís considerable acting skill, Hitler the man remains beyond knowing, at least as a character in a movie. Hirschbiegelís real achievement is to give us a glimpse of the cruel, scheming, deluded, and just plain weird people he surrounded himself with.
Downfall ends with the real Traudl Junge saying that ďAll these horrors Iíve heard of...I assured myself with the thought of not being personally guilty. And that I didnít know anything about the enormous scale of it...But one day I walked by a memorial plate of Sophie Scholl in the Franz- Joseph - Strasse....And at that moment I realized...that it might have been possible to get to know things.Ē Indeed it was, Frau Junge. But first you had to open your eyes.