With Berlin in ruins and the Red Army advancing, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels promised his colleagues that “in a hundred years’ time they will be showing a fine color film of the terrible days we are living through” and asked if they wouldn’t want to play a part in it. Downfall is that fine color movie—opening here 40 years ahead of Goebbels’s schedule. Confined for two and a half hours almost entirely to the vast and fusty führerbunker, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s apocalyptic kammerspiel is notable as the first mainstream German, if not German-language, movie to represent Adolf Hitler—played with acrid grandeur by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. (G.W. Pabst’s 1955 The Last Ten Days, not to be confused with the 1973 Alec Guinness vehicle Hitler—The Last Ten Days, is Austrian; Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s monumental Hitler, a Film From Germany and Alexander Sokurov’s monumentally strange Moloch, a Russian-German co-production, are from Mars.) That novelty aside, Downfall holds few surprises. In essence, the script was written in 1947 when British intelligence officer Hugh Trevor-Roper published The Last Days of Hitler—a hugely successful book that, along with Albert Speer’s Nuremberg testimony, served as the basis for all subsequent accounts of the Nazi götterdämmerung.
Downfall garners additional human interest, however, by taking its cues from the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, an extended interview with the princess of the bunker steno pool, Traudl Junge. The actual Junge is heard introducing Downfall. The movie dramatizes her audition for the job as Hitler’s secretary and—as played by Alexandra Maria Lara—the movie’s key observer, then jumps ahead to April 1945, as the führer prepares to celebrate his 56th birthday with Russian artillery pulverizing Berlin. (Ironically, these scenes were shot in the streets of St. Petersburg.)
Children defend the city, Himmler is trying to cut a deal with Eisenhower, and Hitler is irritable to the point of mania. His consort, the effervescent, if not hysterical, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), wants to party, but Hitler would rather see everyone dead. He rants, raves, and orders the impossible, babbling about lost oil fields, bragging how he openly confronted the Jews, and insulting his generals as “the scum of the German people.” When not paranoid or delusional, he hands out cyanide pellets and, one hand twitching behind his back, discusses the best way to die.
Increasingly stooped and saggy, Ganz looks like a melting waxwork amid the bunker’s moldy furnishings. He studied recordings of Hitler’s voice and his harsh growl is evidently an uncanny reproduction. (That he also sounds like Klaus Kinski puts a new spin on Aguirre). The war is lost and nobody knows what to do. Wehrmacht engage in desperate carousing; one general blows up his family. Syberberg’s magnum opus provides an exhaustive analysis of the Hitler cult. But Ganz’s antics notwithstanding, Downfall‘s real subject is the suffering of the German people—as embodied mainly by a bewildered child soldier, a beleaguered if sanitized SS doctor, and an honest old general.
Other figures stand in for national character disorders. Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his ice queen wife (Corinna Harfouch) are brainwashed zombies. “I won’t let the children grow up in a world where there is no National Socialism,” she declares before poisoning them all. Even though the starstruck Traudl recognizes Hitler is a meanie, she remains loyal. Everyone tells her to leave the bunker, but so long as her führer needs her, she can’t. Traudl glimpses the marriage of Adi and Eva; as in Hitler—The Last Days, the officiating clerk reflexively asks for their Aryan identification papers.
Stupid but not unkind and typically wearing some sort of dirndl, Eva is the surrogate for a nation that loved, not wisely, but too well. “He’s changed so much,” she confides in Traudl. “He only talks about dogs and vegetarian meals.” Eva confesses that she hates Hitler’s pet Blondi and secretly kicks the dog under the table. In Blind Spot, Junge expressed the anger that Hitler’s entourage felt when he drank the Kool-Aid and abandoned them. Downfall subsumes that rage in a general sense that Hitler always despised the German masses. This may be cathartic, but if so, only for a German audience. (Francis Ford Coppola, who released Syberberg’s masterpiece, arrogantly retitled it Our Hitler; Downfall is more like Theirs.)
A current Japanese blockbuster concerns an imperial U-boat thwarting America’s plan to drop a third atom bomb—this time on Tokyo. Downfall may be grimly self-important and inescapably trivializing. But we should be grateful that German cinema is more inclined to normalize the nation’s history than rewrite it.