Plot – Traudl Junge, the final secretary for Adolf Hitler, tells of the Nazi dictator’s final days in his Berlin bunker at the end of WWII – Downfall.
Director – Oliver Hirschbiegel
Released – 2004
For over 70 years, we have depicted Hitler as a cartoonist monster who proceeded over some of humankind’s worst atrocities, but what Downfall aims to do is show Adolf Hitler for not only the monster he was but also the man. For this director, Oliver Hirschbiegel deserves immense credit, after all, it’s harder for us to understand the events and reasons for his rise and eventual demise if continue to see him for more than what he was. An opportunist who came along and played on the fears of post-WWI Germany and a weakened Europe afraid of a second world war.
Bringing together a large and talented cast, Hirschbiegel aimed to give an insight into the chaos that went on during the final days of the Nazi empire, as seen through the eyes of a young and impressionable secretary (Lara). Anchored by the impressive Bruno Ganz, whose performance as Hitler was a revelation. His great skill and attention to detail, including showing the effects of Parkinson’s disease, really helps make this one of the most realistic portraits of this once-powerful man I’ve ever witnessed, rather than the usual two-dimensional or comic characterisations we are usually treated too. Ganz’s screen presence is undeniable, showing the level of charm and charisma that allowed Hitler to gain such devotion from his followers and keeping him in power despite all atrocious atrocities that oversaw.
Even convincing many to stay and fight for him, even when the possibility for survival was all but gone. But it’s not just his charm that’s shown on screen but his angry outbursts too, transitioning between the two at the flick of a switch, such as the scenes with his secretary where he treats her with a level of care similar to a father looking after his daughter while showing contempt for the wider civilian population of Berlin who sees as weak for not fighting back against the invading Russian army and their deaths as nothing but collateral damage that gives him space to rebuild after the war is won.
The rest of the cast, although not as internationally well known, add to the authentic feel of the film. Helping to turn each historical figure into a fleshed-out person with their own motives, such as Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) who loyalty was only a cover for personal ambition when sensing Hitler’s grip on power fading.
Another of the enjoyable aspects of Downfall is the excellent cinematography from Rainer Klausmann, who along with Hirschbiegel helped create a chaotic and unravelling atmosphere in the bunker, with the once disciplined soldiers slowly giving in to depravity and realisation that defeat is inevitable coming to everyone apart from Hitler, who’s still raving about being rescued when the Russian troops are barely a few hundred metres away from the bunker, or giving out promotions for parts of the armed forces that have long been destroyed.
This isn’t a war film filled with heroic battle sequences, here the outcome is already a foregone conclusion where anything other than surrender results in an even greater loss of life. We watch as young children and old men are forced into attempting to hold off the Russian advance with inadequate equipment, knowing if the Russians don’t kill them, power-mad remnants of the German Military police will.
I can think of very few films that have depicted the tragic waste of life that came towards the end of the war as Downfall managed so succinctly to accomplish. a further reminder that those in power didn’t care about a few more lives in a conflict that eventually claimed up to 85 million.