Featuring an outstanding performance from Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler, Downfall is a gruelling and compelling depiction of the final days of the Third Reich.
The lack of German films about Adolf Hitler is a striking hole in post-war German cinema. Nazis have featured in many films and tv shows but often appear as comedy sidekicks in TV shows like Hogans Heroes, one dimensional villains in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or more usually as distant enemy figures in more conventional war films like Saving Private Ryan. Few have dared to seriously examine the Nazi regime and place them centre stage. What is so striking about Downfall, the latest film from director Oliver Hirschbiegel, is that it provides a stark and unflinching gaze at the Nazi high command. Disturbingly, the film forces us to look upon figures such as Hitler and Goebbels with a new eye, judging them as rounded human beings rather than the caricatures they have become.
The plot is taken from two principal sources. Historian Joachim Festís book ďThe Downfall: Inside Hitlerís Bunker, The Last Days of the Third ReichĒ and the memoirs of Hitlerís secretary Traudl Junge, ďUntil The Final HourĒ. The opening of the film is disarming. Instead of explosions and warfare we see a youthful Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) interviewed by a quiet and attentive Hitler (Bruno Ganz). As the film progresses, principal players of the Nazi regime gather together in his bunker as the final days of World War Two play themselves out. Although the action occasionally shifts to locations outside, the film provides a compelling examination of the political and psychological meltdown of the Nazi regime.
With the focus firmly on the characters the film would have suffered if the acting was not up to scratch, but the large cast are uniformly excellent. Bruno Ganz, in the difficult role of the Furhrer, gives an astonishing performance. Not only does he flesh out the familiar historical stereotype but shows all the charm, insecurities and insanity of the Nazi leader. The acting is aided by some superb production design. The recreation of Hitlerís bunker down to the smallest details complements the performances in creating a startling depiction of what Hitlerís final hours were like.
In Germany the film has attracted controversy with critics claiming that the film is wrong to humanise Hitler. But such criticisms do not ring true when you actually view the film. By seeing them as recognisably human we can finally see the squalid evil that lay behind the regime that wreaked such havoc and bloodshed during World War Two. Hitler has long since been placed on a historical pedestal, viewed only through the lens of archive news footage and history book. The strength of Downfall is precisely that it does humanise the architects of the Third Reich. In seeing the evil up close, the atrocities they committed ring clearer than ever before and serve as a chilling warning for future generations.
Much of the deabte surrounding the film has been about the depiction of the Nazis. Stephen Moss writing in The Guardian takes the view that the film is dangerous whilst Alasdair Palmer has a more thoughtful analysis in The Telegraph. You can continue the debate in the forums at Metacritic. William Boyd has written an interesting article about previous portrayals of the dictator on screen and a new documentary called Hitler – In Colour is out on DVD and features new footage of the Nazi leader.