Reviewed Jul 30, 2012
Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, begins with an excerpt from a real life interview with Traudl Junge, the youngest of Adolf Hitler's personal secretaries. This sequence sets the realist tone of the film, which chronicles the final days of Nazi power in Germany, as seen from Adolf Hitler's personal bunker.
One aspect of the film that should, and must, be addressed is the central part given to the dictator, Adolf Hitler, performed for the first time by a German speaking actor in a lead role. Many concerns were raised about the possibility of presenting one of the 21st century's brutal monsters as a sympathetic character, with an entire film that would reflect on his personal life in his final days. The actor chosen for the pivotal role, Bruno Ganz, studied and researched the dictator for months, understanding and mastering Hitler's mannerisms and speaking style. This preparation shines through, as Ganz's performance presents the audience with a portrayal of Hitler unlike any other ever seen on film. Hitler is shown as human as possible, establishing him as a weak, old man, afflicted with a twitching hand and a frail body. However, the film does not celebrate, nor in any way forgive, the tyrant's actions or motives. Throughout the film, he is shown as a neurotic paranoid, losing touch with the dire reality of his situation. Hindered by military impotence that prevents any rebuttal against the approaching Russian forces, Hitler strikes out against his closet advisors, assaulting them with accusations of cowardice and betrayal. He commands armies that no longer exist to attack, and orders the execution of untrustworthy officials that are located hundreds of miles away. Even as approaching artillery manages to shake the most secure bunker in all of Germany, Hitler continues to discuss how the Third Reich will rise again to crush his pathetic enemies, his illusions of grandeur sustaining themselves against all odds. He spouts indifference to the suffering of German civilians, claiming that only the weak survived, as the true heroes of Germany had already given up their lives. Until the very last moments of his life, he continues to express hateful and xenophobic sentiments to those he believes do not qualify as part of the master race. However, sparks of kindness do manage to shine through. He loves his dog, treats women with respect and dignity, and honors the bravery of children continuing the futile fight for Berlin. While this kindness does nothing to overshadow, or even attempt to blot out the cruelness of his behavior, the honest presentation of his more human moments is a rather rare , and appreciated, observation.
Congratulations should also be placed upon the shoulders of the actors who portrayed those that lived with Hitler inside the bunker. Each had their own motivations and desires, while also attempting to come to terms with their loyalty towards a delusional leader. The top generals never verbally oppose their leader on the grounds of his obvious insanity, rather conveying their feelings through quick side glances to each other, doubt apparent in their eyes. Each member of Hitler's entourage know that the end is near, and each react in various ways, whether it be drowning themselves in alcohol, daring escapes, or committing suicide. These characters provide further insight into how the downfall of the Nazi's power affected everyone from the top generals to the lowly cook.
The color pallet of the film is dark and muted, perfectly mirroring the despondency that encompasses the broken capitol. Nothing in the film shines, and sunlight obviously never penetrates the deep bunker. The composition of the film also established the deteriorating state of Berlin and her leaders. The wide shots sued to show the city outside of the bunker demonstrates to the audience scenes of destruction and violence, crumbling building and bleeding soldiers. This is juxtaposed by scenes that take place inside the bunker, which are often close-ups that highlight the claustrophobia and fear present in each person residing within the underground hideout. The cinematography and art direction utilize these subtle nuances to evoke emotions and draw the audience in, while still maintaining the film's utter realist tone.
As a final note, we should be completely honest with ourselves: As rational people, do we have anything to fear from documenting and presenting the life of a man who has long been dead? By maintaining the status quo of only showing Nazis as the powerful and ruthless enemies in film, we have accidentally created the illusion that Hitler and his Nazis were somehow more dangerous than the common man, turning them into powerful and fearful monsters from our worst nightmares. The film refuses to deal with these myths, rather presenting Hitler and his top generals as developed human beings, with their own ambitions, fears, and self-doubts. And like all those who act with hatred in their hearts, these men crumble and collapse as they face their own mortality thanks to their self-inflicted downfalls.