Downfall, a harrowing and thought-provoking film from German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment), tells the story of the last days of the Third Reich, largely from within the confines of Hitler’s bunker deep under the German Chancellery in Berlin. The film is based on two books, a history by Joachim Fest and a personal memoir by one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge.
In part, the point of view is Junge’s. She was young and pretty and Hitler treated her with kindliness andpatience. But Hirschbiegel draws a more complex and layered picture of the fall of Germany than that which the naive Junge could provide. She is a point of entry, but a sidebar, really, to the more profound questions that Hirschbiegel addresses. And that she was treated well by Hitler certainly does not constitute a whitewashing of the evil incarnate that the director makes thoroughly clear.
Front and center, of course, is the F�hrer himself. A riveting performance by Bruno Ganz (The Manchurian Candidate, Bread and Tulips) grows in intensity as the Russian armies surround and inexorably close in on Berlin. Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) urges Hitler to leave the city, but Hitler refuses, unwilling to believe that the German army cannot fight off the Russians. Albert Speer, the architect for Hitler’s envisioned Utopian city of the future (a ponderous neo-classic design), also urges him to leave. When Hitler refuses, Speer says, "You must be on stage when the curtain falls"–not a response that Hitler appreciates.
Despite the continuing reports of the collapse of German defenses, Hitler remains in denial, increasingly out of touch with reality, ever more paranoid, angry and vengeful, spouting virulent anti-Semitism, erupting with malevolent megalomania. His hand, trembling with Parkinson’s, is seen curled behind his back like the grasping claw of a predatory beast. When officers plead for negotiations with the Russians in order to spare the civilians in Berlin, Hitler says they can’t be worried about the people now and that he’d as soon leave a wasteland for the victors. This, even as he plans his marriage to Eva Braun, to befollowed by their joint suicide.
Hirschbiegel alternates scenes in the bunker with the mayhem on the streets above–street fighting, constant shelling, the screams of the wounded and dying. A brother and sister, members of Hitler youth and barely into their teens, fight the Russians with rockets, refusing the pleas of their father to come home. A group of the aged and infirm, abandoned in an institution, sit quietly, helpless and hopeless as the world around them descends into chaos. Scenes in a makeshift hospital where drugs are in short supply show a surgeon removing mangled limbs with a hack saw. It is the sideshow to Armageddon. While the citizens starve and shiver and bleed to death in the cold, Hitler and his cadre drink and eat in the comfort of their bunker.
As central as Hitler is to the story, Hirschbiegel’s theme goes beyond the merely biographical. The close cadre of officers are split between those who would hold out to the end and those who are ready to surrender. Hirschbiegel examines the varieties of ways these Nazis deal with the incipient fall of the regime that they led. Some party drunkenly; ultimately some (including Hitler) take their own lives, rather than face the consequences of defeat–seen here as a cowardly act, not an act of honor. Most pointedly, Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), dominating her husband, is so fully invested emotionally in National Socialism, that she cannot conceive of life afterwards. Rather than escape, she coolly poisons her six young children and then sits down for a quiet game of solitaire. Equally coolly, she and her husband end their own lives shortly after.
Downfall is a cinematic Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods, in this case self-appointed gods whose hubris and defiant arrogance was purged at an incalculable cost in human suffering. That they continued to believe their own false mythology in the face of imminent defeat remains a grim irony of history. Hirschbiegel’s film pulls no punches. He neither sugarcoats nor exaggerates; the underlying factual material is so inherently laden with melodrama it needs no embellishment. Dispassionately, but with the morbid fascination elicited by decadence and destruction, Hirschbiegel witnesses the demise of the abomination called Nazism.
(A postscript to the movie, a filmed statement by the aged Junge, made before she died in February, 2002, is touching and important. She explains that she felt no guilt for many years over her association with the Nazis, asserting that she didn’t know at the time the horrors the regime was perpetrating. But then she came to realize that her ignorance was no excuse. If she had wanted to see, she could have, she acknowledges, and she became deeply remorseful over her involvement.)