Downfall (2004)

“You must be on the stage when the curtain falls.”

Downfall from director Oliver Hirschbiegel focuses on the last days inside of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. With Soviet troops drawing closer, Hitler (Bruno Ganz) attempts to conduct WWII from inside his final stronghold. Surrounded by generals and loyal followers, Hitler vacillates between moments of clarity (realizing the war is utterly lost), and imagining that he can still win.

Many familiar names from the infamous Rogue’s gallery of the SS appear here–the Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Speer (Heino Sprich), and Himmler (Ulrich Noethen). Loyal Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) is by Hitler’s side until the end, and her blind, glassy-eyed obedience is terrifying. The film juxtaposes scenes inside the bunker with desperate scenes outside in Berlin–where male citizens risked lynching if they didn’t participate in the insane, suicidal defense of Berlin.

Some reviews and articles criticized the film for being too sympathetic to Hitler, and this is probably due, in part to the fact that some of the film is seen through the eyes of Hitler’s young secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). I didn’t find the film sympathetic to Hitler at all–rather the opposite. I saw Hitler as a madman–with cult leader status and a cult full of death worshippers. In many of the scenes, Hitler has an outburst, and the various generals, & loyal followers in the room sneak looks at one another to gauge others’ reactions. At one point, Hitler even glibly refers to units that no longer exist. In spite of the fact that the generals knew they were in the presence of a madman, no one changed course. And the course was set for death–many of Hitler’s followers decided that a world without National Socialism–a world without the Fuhrer–was a place they didn’t want to live in. Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) takes the award for the most monstrous woman in the film. There’s sympathy here for Hitler’s dog, and the Goebbels children, but apart from that the film is an amazing testament to the cult of Hitler’s destructive personality.

Downfall is riveting, and it captures the desperation, the madness, and the doom of Hitler’s intimate circle. Ganz’s mesmerizing interpretation of Hitler will never be improved upon.


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