Downfall (Germany/Italy, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Downfall is the third major filmed account of Hitler's final ten days, following in the distant wake of 1973's Hitler: The Last Ten Days and 1981's The Bunker. A superior production to both of the earlier movies, Downfall is a windfall for anyone who, like me, is fascinated by stories from World War II. The first internationally released German production to feature Hitler as a central figure, Oliver Hirschbiegel's film has been criticized in some circles as presenting a portrait of the Fuhrer that is "too sympathetic." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. As portrayed in a powerhouse performance by Bruno Ganz, Hitler comes across as a petty, demented figure who spews bile as he rants and raves. The lone exception is an establishing scene in 1942 (when Hitler chooses a secretary), where he appears almost grandfatherly. Other than that, he is shown to be a conscienceless, hateful madman who believes his people deserve to die because they are no longer fit to live.

Based on the memoirs of Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), and Joachim Fest's Inside Hitler's Bunker, Downfall goes for rigorous historical accuracy. The recreations of a bombed-out Berlin are especially impressive. Like in Stalingrad and the recent The Pianist, Downfall takes us into a realistic replica of a city that has been devastated by countless days of bombings. Small dramas are played out in the streets as the larger one unfolds beneath. Hitler, completely out of control, rants about betrayals by his henchmen (Himmler has gone to the Allies to sue for peace), and tries to place troops that no longer exist. By the end of his life, it's clear that Hitler is no longer in command of anything - neither the country he raised to glory then smashed to ruins nor his own mind.

The most sobering scene in the movie, however, does not feature the Fuhrer. Instead, it centers on the wife of Joseph Goebbels. In a scene lifted out of the history books, she doses her children with a sleeping draught, then, when they are unconscious, she crushes cyanide pills between their teeth. She does this coldly, almost robotically. It's a chilling scene, and, despite its bloodlessness, is difficult to watch. This kind of blind devotion offers evidence of why Hitler was so dangerous at the height of his power. What kind of charisma would it take to convince a mother to murder her children rather than let them live in a world where the Nazi party was dead?

By the time the Russians arrive, the film is essentially over. We see the fates of most of the major players, including Hitler, Goebbels (and his wife), Eva Braun, Junge, and a number of top generals and aides. The life-stories of others (those who survived beyond the fall of the bunker) are related through captions. Downfall never loses its focus by seeking to broaden its scope. This allows us to absorb this one aspect of a humongous tragedy, rather than being bombarded by too much information in a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp.

Sixty years after his death, with nearly all of his confidants and confederates in the grave, Hitler still fascinates students of history. The most malevolent and important man of the 20th century, the likes of the Furher have not been seen since he blew his brains out in the guts of his bunker. Next to Hitler, Osama Bin Laden and Sadaam Hussein are in nursery school. Movies about the late dictator often disappoint because directors are wary of the subject matter; Hirschbiegel pushes forward, telling his story without varnish. The result is a movie whose forcefulness kept me thinking about the subject and its treatment long after the lights had returned to the theater. Downfall and Bruno Ganz are deserving of Oscars they will not get (although Downfall was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film). However, the limited U.S. release by Newmarket Films will allow anyone with an interest to have an opportunity to see one of the most finely-crafted World War II films ever made.

Downfall (Germany/Italy, 2004)

Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2005
Run Time: 2:30
U.S. Release Date: 2005-02-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1