The story of DOWNFALL, Hitler?s last days in his Berlin bunker before committing suicide when his Third Reich was at an end has been told before in countless versions. What sets this film apart is the way it incorporates the oral history of Hitler?s secretary, Traudl Junge (played like an innocent lamb to the slaughter by Alexandra Maria Lara), who remained silent on the subject until shortly before her death less than half a dozen years ago, and the mesmerizing, complex performance by Bruno Ganz as the Fuhrer.
There are the well-known facts: Frau Goebbels (a chilling Corinna Harfouch) and her slavish worship of Hitler with its unspeakable consequences, Hitler?s vacillation between megalomaniacal denial and equally megalomaniacal depression as the tide of war turned against him. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel presents the action with a palpable sense of voyeurism as the camera tracks different people through the bunker, emphasizing the claustrophobia, stopping a moment here and there to peer, like Junge did, into rooms to which she had no access, coming away with telling glimpses of the commanders of the place. The way her glance, like the camera?s, lingers on Eva Braun?s (Juliane Kohler) shawl and handbag left where she left them before committing suicide and remaining after her body is taken away. Earlier, she watches from across a ballroom as Braun, stir-crazy from the close quarters and the constant bombing drags a group of people to the surface for one last party. Braun dances wildly on a table, laughing as the champagne flows and her party dress sparkles, boisterous, determinedly giddy with the underlying hysteria of a trapped animal and a look in her eyes that gives it all away.
This Hitler is not constantly foaming at the mouth. Though there are explosive outbursts, showing only that would be a cheat. Ganz is nuanced when necessary, this Hitler is courtly at times, acknowledging Junge?s nerves when she first meets him and putting her at ease. Yet it?s anything but a sympathetic portrait. It?s with the same quiet and measured tones that Hitler explains that if his Germans can?t win the war for him, then they all deserve to die with him. Ganz reflects the contradictions and makes them different facets of the same twisted personality. He actually seems to shrink in size during the course of the film as the effort to keep believing in the cause wears him down, the palsied hand shakes more and Ganz’s movements in general become slower and more deliberate.
Hirshbiegel takes the action outside the bunker, as well, putting a human face on the consequences of the Reich with two stories. The pitiful patriotism of a 12-year-old boy, on whom Hitler pins a medal for destroying a tank single-handedly, and an SS doctor who pitches in with the wounded, discovering in the besieged streets of Berlin a no man?s land of chaos where roving bands of self-appointed death squads execute anyone they consider a traitor to the cause.
Junge, the apolitical young woman who is bowled over by Hitler?s glamour is a minor, but important character. Unlike the true believers who dedicated themselves body and soul to the Nazi cause, or the ambitious hangers-on grabbing at bits of power and wealth, her reasons for being there are less defined and more troubling. When Hitler wants to send her and his other two secretaries away from Berlin, she volunteers to stay, without prompting, and also without thinking. Later, when she?s asked why she did it, she doesn?t have a concrete reason beyond a vague sense of needing to do it. Junge becomes the metaphor for the quirks inherent in human nature, the blind need to follow someone who seems larger than life or to have all the answers, or both, that allows evil to flourish.
This is not just a history lesson recounting events in a distant past. Instead, this is a gripping cautionary tale with parallels in the present. Ultimately, though, the most disturbing element in DOWNFALL is not what Frau Goebbels did when faced with a world without her beloved Fuhrer, nor the SS officers who commit suicide almost as a reflex action when the Reich falls. The thing that should haunt everyone who sees this film is a line said by one of Hitler?s inner circle to the effect that they didn?t force themselves on the German people. They had, and kept, a mandate. The reverence, the absolute devotion that Hitler?s followers show him would be, if directed towards an appropriate leader, religious or secular, say Gandhi, an attitude to be celebrated, for the depth of its conviction that leads to martyrdom over renunciation of an ideal. But seeing those same sentiments played out in exactly the same terms, directed towards Hitler, provides an appropriately jarring disconnect that should make the audience question the role of those who hold power over us, and the responsibility of those who follow them.