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Downfall (2004)

Director: Oliver Hirshbiegel. Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Mattes, 155 minutes Color, Dubbed in English

What makes Downfall so compelling is its humanity. With harrowing understatement, the camera’s unflinching gaze sees the people filling Adolf Hitler’s increasingly claustrophobic bunker as believably like the rest of us, even as the war their Führer started is about to come literally crashing down around them.

Based on the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, the film (now available on DVD) stirred controversy in Germany, partly because it depicts Hitler as a Parkinson’s sufferer whose key advisers reinforce his quickening drift from reality. Paradoxical as it may seem, this approach makes his (and their) evil more, not less, horrifying.

Inside the concrete rabbit warren, especially in front of the Führer, “normal” life continues as long as possible. (Juliane Kohler as Eva Braun deftly personifies how, in her almost tragically upbeat partying.) To underline the escalating disconnects between orders from the bunker and the skirmishes aboveground, the movie periodically cuts to frustrated officers with tattered troops, children and old men armed, sort of, to defend the bits of Berlin rubble not yet overrun by the dreaded Russians.

Aptly, death enters the bunker with the Goebbels family. Josef and Magda have decided to poison their children; she does the deed herself. In an awful scene, she argues and cajoles one child into taking the pill. The glaring mix of pride and rage on her face afterward is heart-stopping.

As Hitler, the acclaimed Bruno Ganz is masterful: Frightening or pathetic in his twitchy outbursts but no caricature, his Hitler is the dying human spider at the center of this grim web. Many are terrified of him. Some know how little his phantom armies can deliver but can’t make him comprehend, even when they try. But there are also those, like Junge, who are concerned everyone is abandoning him in his hour of need.

Here lies the movie’s jarring brilliance. While portraying Hitler and his followers as cartoon evil can be satisfying (it implicitly reassures us we couldn’t be them), it isn’t history. Hitler’s evil is undeniable, but so is how his charisma and insight made him a magnetic (and successful) leader. Downfall lets us glimpse how and why Germans like Junge followed him right up to the cataclysm.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.