“April 1945, a nation awaits its…”
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Matthes
Synopsis: 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.
It strikes me that no society is ever very far from Nazism. The same ordinary people who tut and shake their heads at the monstrous deeds perpetrated by the Nazis also complain about European immigrants who, attracted by a better standard of living, ‘come over here and take all our jobs.’ Obviously the scale of the racism is vastly different, but one is the budding seed from which, if left unchecked, the other eventually grows. The only reason that kind of xenophobic madness doesn’t flourish today is because we’re governed by rules that forbid it. In 1930s Germany, no such rules existed because of the ideology of the National Socialists. Back then, if you didn’t display a fanatical hatred of the Jew then you weren’t with the programme, and if you weren’t with the programme you’d probably be considered an enemy of the state sooner or later.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s compelling Downfall examines the death throes of the Nazi doctrine with a comprehensive and unflinching eye. His account, scripted by Bernd Eichinger, is based on the books by Joachim Fest and Traudl Junge, one of Adolf Hitler’s secretaries in those final days. Junge is played with a not entirely persuasive wide-eyed innocence by Alexandra Maria Lara. Like the once vast empire in Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte that has been reduced to a single grain of sand, Hitler’s once sprawling dominion is reduced to the claustrophobic Fuhrerbunker constructed beneath the Berlin Reich Chancellery. The bunker is occupied not only by Hitler, but by those henchmen who have remained loyal as the dreams of the Third Reich crumbled around them, and by their families. Soldiers sit around and drink themselves insensible, all discipline suddenly evaporated.
At 56, Hitler is prematurely aged, his shoulders stooped, moustache greying, his left hand perpetually trembling. His grip on reality is fast disappearing. He orders the deployment of units that have already been demolished by the advance of the Russians, and accuses all around him of incompetence and betrayal. Only he is blameless. Had those beneath him followed his orders things would have been so different. Bruno Ganz plays Hitler with frightening conviction. One moment he is ranting and raving, the next he displays the soft-eyed kindness of a benevolent old gentleman. Some have criticised this humanising of Hitler, but I believe it’s good to do so. Hitler wasn’t a monster — he was a human being who orchestrated monstrous acts. To portray him as anything other than human is a form of denial that simply leaves the way open for others like him to some day take up the reins. Hirschbiegel seems to understand this, and isn’t afraid to show a kinder side to the man, to make him recognisable to us.
The impression of how quickly and completely a society can implode through loss of leadership is palpable. On the few occasions that Hirschbiegel takes us above ground he ushers us into a world gone mad. Deserters are pulled from their homes and shot in the rubble-strewn streets; suspected Communists are hung from lamp-posts by their neighbours; young boys fire shells at the advancing Russian tanks. Hitler has abandoned them; they too, are responsible for his downfall simply by being inferior to his ideal, and he has no sympathy for them. Downfall explores every aspect of Hitler’s downfall with an almost documentarian eye that is by turns fascinating and sickening, particularly as his camera dispassionately records Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) first drugging her children with a sleeping draught and then, once they are asleep, placing a cyanide capsule between their teeth and then breaking it by applying pressure to their jaw. It is chilling moments like this, rather than more conventional acts of random violence, that really drive home the insidious nature of a malign ideology.