Downfall is a breakthrough film for the Germans, the first film since the end of World War II to openly depict Adolf Hitler and The Third Reich. This alone makes the film worth seeing as a familiar war is finally addressed through the culture that lost the war. For Germany, this is their All Quiet on the Western Front for World War II.
The film dwells on the final days of the war, depicting what happened in the bucker Adolf Hitler (portrayed by Bruno Ganz in the film) in the last days of his regime. Many know the story of how his generals put on the map more armies than they had and how Hitler still held out despite the odds. Watching it dramatized proves fascinating, not so much in the details but in the way the characters around Hitler react.
This is because the film is about looking into what happens when a superpower falls. There’s little power left in Germany at the time, most of the army consists of ragged men and foolish children running around in potholes in Berlin, staving off the looming Russian army. Those scenes alone depict this creepy, almost post-apocalyptic nightmare that pervades Berlin.
The film then focuses on a number of characters and shows how their behaviors and actions change once they realize that The Third Reich is done for. Some, out of a sense of preservation, begin to distance themselves from Hitler while others prove a kind of disturbing fanatical devotion to the man, blinding themselves to the truth and still believing in The Third Reich Watching their actions proves for some of the most memorable and haunting moments of the film.
But how could people still prove loyal to Hitler? Through Bruno Ganz performance, Hitler is brought to live and one is given insights into how people might have fallen for him. He’s not a domineering figure, rather short and he carries himself with almost a congenial air. There’s a vulnerability to him in these last days, a weariness that draws the audience into his character.
However, when he explores it’s is with such focused rage and raw power that one is either caught up in joining him in it or fearing it. The most frightening part is when he speaks about a new Berlin, a place of beauty, the arts and magnificence. It’s hard not to get caught up in this vision, imagine how splendid it would be if such a city would exist.
But, of course, it masks the sinister nature of the film. Surprisingly, the film displays Hitler’s raw hatred for the Jews as he says his one pride is how he stood up against them and squashed them. The easy and safe road would be to skip past this, to simply zero in on the final days and avoid the context, but the film, to its merit, does not take that easy road.
The bookends of the film speak to this even more as it’s footage of an interview it the real Traudl Junge (who is later played in the rest of the film by Alexandra Maria Lara). She talks about how she took that easy road, got caught up in the wave and simply didn’t investigate what was happening and how it affected her after the fact.
The film should actually be her story. The bookends give it focus and if the story followed her it could give a better narrative flow and cohesion to a piece that is a bit too long and sprawling. When the film does finally take the last act with her, it becomes significantly better and gives us a character to empathize and connect with despite the fact she’s a Nazi. If she carried the film it would be involving, but instead it becomes more of an intellectual engagement.
And that is the failure of Downfall. For all it’s fascination, significance and insights there’s an emotional distance to it all, a barrier that makes it hard to get into these character’s lives and understand and relate to them. Some of it is, of course, part of growing up in a society that vilified Nazis as monsters but lost sight of the fact that amid the horror they were still human with dreams, hopes and fears like the rest of us. The film’s finest moments tap into these, it’s just a shame it couldn’t personalize them more.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing