After a brief prologue that finds Hitler (Bruno Ganz) choosing Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) - the woman who would later become the subject of the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary - as his secretary, Hirschbiegel's film whisks us away to 1945 Berlin, where der Fuhrer and company are vainly attempting to keep the Aryan dream alive from a concrete bunker deep underneath the battle-ravaged city. Hitler remains convinced, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the war remains winnable, and Ganz - an actor whose strength is usually found in contemplative silence - superbly brings the horrific fascist to maniacal life, balancing an exhausted, stooped posture and twitching left hand (always held behind his back) with sudden delusional tirades of mouth-frothing madness. Surrounded by increasingly cynical military officers, an unrepentant Hitler is agitated, desperate, and unable to relinquish the belief that his Nazi army will re-mobilize for a final, fatal strike against the Russians. Meanwhile, absurd and surreal last-gasp mini-dramas play out throughout the bunker, from Junge and her fellow secretary's attempts to remain optimistic and Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) and Heinrich Himmler's (Ulrich Noethen) eventual desertions to, most chillingly, Magda (Corinna Harfouch) and Joseph Goebbels' (Ulrich Matthes) plans to exterminate their six children should National Socialism crumble.
Hirschbiegel shortchanges none of these subplots, lavishing impressive in-the-foxhole details - from Magda Goebbels' interest in watching a chemist concoct poison for her tykes, and Hitler's consultations about the best means of suicide - on each and every one of his pestilent characters. At 155 minutes, Downfall feels both epic and small, a searing depiction of momentous, world-altering events that nonetheless feels claustrophobic and pathetic. Hirschbiegel finds chilling images amidst the chaos, such as when a mired-in-denial Eva throws an alcohol-fueled party while thunderous Russian artillery fire pounds the city. Though a subplot about children taking up arms to fight in the streets feels gratuitous and cloying (did the filmmakers really need to place fictional children in peril to make the story more compelling?), the film progresses methodically, foregoing detailed discussions about the war's overall politics in favor of documenting, with clinical care, the various ways in which the Nazis - most of them zealous believers right until the very instant they killed themselves - flailed about as if buried alive.
Such an accomplished dramatization of abiding anxiety and insanity, however, is frequently undone by attempts to elicit compassion (or at least any emotion other than hate) for these characters' undoing. On the basis of Downfall - which certainly spends considerable time depicting the Nazis' wretchedness - I'm confident that these despicable, larger-than-life bastards revolt Hirschbiegel and Eichinger. Yet in making a film so rigorously focused on their destruction, the filmmakers invariably wind up romanticizing, to varying degrees, people and events that should not, and cannot, be successfully portrayed as sympathetic. Junge does a significant amount of hand-wringing over whether to stay with her beloved Fuhrer and a humanitarian SS doctor (perhaps the film's most egregiously misleading character) attempts to save the city's elderly civilians, while military commanders, convinced that Hitler has lost his marbles but committed to their world-conquering cause, weep and get drunk under the strain of remaining loyal to their lunatic leader.
Unwilling to fully subscribe to a cold, detached view of these proceedings, the director instead sets scenes of paranoia, suicide and supposed courageousness by Hitler's foot soldiers to mournful music, while discreetly turning his camera away from Hitler and Goebbels as self-inflicted bullets end their miserable lives. The effect is one of misplaced empathy. Everyone in that bunker, from the demonic Goebbels to the willfully blind (yet nonetheless complicit) Junge - who escapes from the bunker and enjoys a lyrical bike ride to safety at film's conclusion - deserves no less than utter contempt, and to soften them up by portraying them as compassionate, frail or feeble is in some sense to mitigate their villainy. Hitler may have loved his dog Blondi, Speer may have disobeyed orders during the Reich's dying months, and Junge may have shown kindness in making the Goebbels kids their final meal, but Downfall's concentration on such trivialities is gravely misguided, and ultimately winds up partially glossing over each and every Nazi's damning culpability in a global atrocity.
Aka Der Untergang.
Run time: 156 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 16th September 2004
Production compaines: Taeheung Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
IMDB: 8.3 / 10
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Producer: Bernd Eichinger
Screenwriter: Bernd Eichinger
Also starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Mattes, Juliane Kohler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich, Thomas Kretschmann, Michael Mendl, Ulrich Noethen, Bernd Eichinger