Downfall is a film that spends most of its time in a besieged bunker during the last 12 days of Adolph Hitlerís life. Between the subject, the subtitles, the claustrophobia and an ending devoid of suspense or sympathy, it would seem the easiest film in the world to avoid. Yet as enervating as the 156 minute experience is, it is impossible to turn away from Downfall. For reasons that go beyond filmmaking it is both a landmark and a masterpiece.
Oliver Hirschbiegel directs the all-German production from a script by Bernd Eichinger, based on two books about Hitlerís final days, including the memoirs of Traudl Junge, herself the subject of the recent documentary Blind Spot: Hitlerís Secretary. While the rest of the world has long had its way with Hitler and the Nazis, postwar Germany has understandably sought to distance itself from its past. Even the prolific and daring German film industry has largely skirted the subject for 60 years. So one can only imagine the pressure and scrutiny on Hirschbiegel and Eichinger in making an epic out of the national nightmare. They have responded with an historian's devotion to factual detail and an artist's eye for the truths that often lurk behind the facts.
We meet Hitler in 1942 coming out of the study of his East Prussian lair to interview a half-dozen young women recruited by the SS to be his personal secretary. He selects a young woman from Munich - Fraulein Junge, played by Alexandra Maria Lara - and escorts her into his adjacent office to dictate a letter. When Junge freezes in terror upon making a typing error, Hitler merely suggests they start over. It is the beginning of an extraordinary performance by Bruno Ganz in what has traditionally been a thankless or comic role. Ganz' Hitler is equally pathological and human, capable of damning even his most loyal followers to hideous deaths and utterly believable as Uncle Hitler when the children of Josef Goebbles happily climb on his lap. There will always be those who prefer to take the human out of Hitler, but this has always struck me as the more dangerous way to deal with his legacy.
Goebbels, Himmler, Speer, Borman, Keitel, Jodl, Eva Braun....names familiar to every red-blooded American war buff. We watch the once bustling bunker slowly empty as loyal enablers contemplate the literal dead end their delusional Fuerher has led them down. One of the last to leave is Hitler's secretary. She was not an architect of the war, nor did she display any influence over Hitler or history. But in her simplicity, her kindness and her blind loyalty, Eichinger finds the glue to hold the film together.
Outside the bunker, in an epic recreation of a fallen Berlin, he also finds a young boy fighting the Russian tanks that will shortly spell the last gasp of Nazi Germany. And when he puts the hand of this orphan into the hand of Fraulein Junge, he gives Germany a future, and Downfall an ending as powerful and conflicting as the rest of this devastating film.
© 2005 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 3/16/05
Germany/Italy/Austria - 2004