Downfall: Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Chronicle of Hitler, Starring Bruno Ganz in Astounding Performance

Downfall is not the first movie about Hitler or about the last days of Nazism, but it’s certainly the most revelatory. In fact, this seminal film is as much a portrait of a single, mad man, holding on to his principles until the very end, as it is a collective portrait of the decline and demise of an entire regime, ideology, and a way of life,

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel depicts in painstaking detail the day- to-day operation of an entire system and way of thinking–what the philosopher Hannah Arendt has described as “the banality of evil.” What’s admirable about Downfall is that it pays attention to the doing and thinking of dozen of characters, which make the film’s scope epic in the true sense of this term. Spanning three weeks in April 1945, it’s an important cinematic document of the spiritual, emotional, and technical decay and collapse of a mass-destruction machine.

Though almost every scene is important as part of the bigger puzzle, Downfall is the kind of whose emotional power is cumulative. Most of the narrative is set during the last week of the Fuehrer life and its immediate entourage, as spent in a tightly secured bunker in Berlin.

Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gives such an astounding performance as Hitler, one that goes way beyond impersonation and mimicry that it’s hard to imagine the film with any other actor but him. He is surrounded by all the who’s who of German theater and film.

It would be wrong to describe Downfall as a humanistic film, as if it tries to humanize a monster by putting a recognizable face, emotions, and feelings to figure that’ evil incarnate. Instead, director Hirschbiegel takes a more detached, sober, and objective perspective, which lets each individual viewer makes his or her own mind about the truly horror saga onscreen.

The choice of a fast-paced melodrama, one with numerous characters, subplots, and events, makes this two-and-a-half hour movie not only thoughtful and intelligent, but also entertaining and involving in both cerebral and emotional ways. While watching the film, I had chills during a number of scenes.

The film world-premiered at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival to enthusiastic critical response. Then, a week later, it opened in Germany and broke box-office records there. Downfall is the German submission for the foreign-language Oscars, whose final nominees will be announced on January 25; I hope it’s one of the five contenders.

It is almost hard to believe but Downfall, written and produced by vet Bernd Eichinger, this is the first German movie about Hitler since G.W. Pabst’s Der letzte Akt (1956), with legit actor Albin Skoda in the role of Hitler. But the film didn’t have much impact outside of Germany.

For decades afterwards, the feeling was that the public–German and non-German–was not interested in a feature film about Hitler. Nonetheless, released six decades after the fall of Hitler and the end of WWII, Downfall should benefit from renewed intellectual and dramatic interest in the era by scholars, artists, and the lay public as well.

Two years ago, a small, interesting film, Blind Spot, by Austrian director Andre Heller, played the international film festival circuit. The intimately focused documentary consists of interview with Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, who is a major character, possibly the “most humane,” in Downfall.

Bernd Eichinger’s richly dense screenplay is based on Traudl Junge’s published memoir, Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary, along with Third Reich scholar Joachim Fest’s major book, Inside Hitler’s Bunker, which was a best-seller in many countries.

The helmer’s decision to end Downfall with Junge’s real voice and on-camera appearance, not only brings the film to the present, but adds an inside look, showing the evolution (or is it devolution) of German thinking about that era. Junge’s new comments are highly-charged and ambiguous, and should be taken critically with a grain of salt.

For viewers interested in the military-industrial complex and the politics of war, Downfall is an invaluable document bout the inner circles of absolute power, of how fateful decisions are made by a small group of strong-minded men behind closed doors (literally closed in this picture). What the great late sociologist described so well in his seminal study, The Power Elite.

Traudl is both an individual character, with her own sets of beliefs, motivations, and needs, but she is also meant to represent the average German citizen, the non-political, non-office holder, through her ambivalent, ever-shifting relationship with the Fuhrer. This is particularly so in the last days of the regime, when personal survival, namely, whether to stay with Hitler to the bitter end or to leave Berlin, becomes a choice of utmost ideological and personal importance; simply put, it’s a matter of life and death.

Traudl is first seen, in a brief prologue, as a nervous 22-year-old applicant for the job of Hitler’s private secretary in November 1942. She is a celeb-struck innocent, a shy girl (played credibly by Alexandra Maria Lara) who, upon being hired, feels utmost joy–and the privilege just to be close to the Fuhrer.

The main segments of the film chronicle the last ten days of Hitler’s life, from his 56th birthday, on April 20, 1945, to his and Eva’s suicide, on April 30. The director has made a good decision not to end the film with Hitler’s suicide, but to continue the story beyond that, and show how the various personae dealt with the defeat.

Of particular significance in these final chapters are the suicide of Mr. and Mrs. Goebbels and their family. The scenes depicting Mrs. Goebbles’ poisoning her own children, one by one, with some resistance by one of her daughters, are heart-breaking and too painful to watch. But the film also shows a ray of life for some of the characters, such as Traudl, who chose to escape from the city and made it into the Russian-controlled area and beyond.

As expected, Bruno Ganz dominates every scene he is in, whether railing against the poisonous cowardice of Jews, the feebleness of the German people who, in his mind, “deserve their fate,” and the near-daily betrayals, by high-ranking and low-ranking officers, which he simply can’t understand or tolerate. But there are some lovely quiet, touching moments that show Hitler as the bourgeois gentleman, kissing his female employees’ hands, paying a compliment in the midst of a bombing to the cook for a well-cooked dinner, presenting flowers to his mistress Eva Braun, and so on.

It’s ridiculous to engage in a discussion to what extent Ganz brings the humanity out of Hitler, because that’s not the point of the film. What’s more important is that the portrait is truly complex and multi-nuanced, showing Hitler the leader, Hitler the husband (a nice scene depicts his wedding to Eva Braun in the bunker), Hitler the boss, and Hitler the father figure to the many children in the Bunker, who are often forced to play silly games or sing patriotic songs at the worst moments.

The best thing that could be said about Downfall is that it is not a one-man film and, performance-wise, not a one-man show. In this respect, it is far more ambitious and satisfying that previous English-speaking movies about Hitler, such as the 1973 Hitler: The Last Ten Days, with the estimable Alec Guinness. Neither Eichinger’s well-crafted script and realistic dialogue, nor Hirschbiegel’s matter-of-fact direction, call attention to themselves–both serve the story admirably and functionally.

Hence, despite the fact that Hitler’s suicide takes place a whole reel before the film ends, Downfall continues to be suspenseful, emotionally-riveting, and attention-grabbing all the way to its end credits. As soon as one set of characters terminate their lives, or disappear, the narrative picks up the surviving characters and tells the story from their point of view.

A good deal of research went into this well-mounted production, particularly Bernd Lepel’s recreation of the Hitler’s Bunker in a Munich studio. Predominantly gray, with long and dark corridors and huge doors, the setting combines the ambience of cold and efficient military headquarter with the cozier and warmer ambience of a well-decorated household, where people eat, drink, party, dance, and make love.

By keeping its focus narrow, the film captures vividly the everyday life of a community on the verge of extinction, of residents who up to the last moments refuse to believe that they are witnessing the bitter end of a glorious empire.

Space does not permit me to dwell on each of the large gallery of characters and actors, but suffice is to say that there is not a single flawed performance in the entire film. Scenes between Hitler and famous architect Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) are just as intriguing as those between Hitler and his officers, or Hitler and Eva Braun, who somehow comes across as frivolous party girl who did love Hitler. It may be the writer’s intention to use Eva Braun’s domestic scenes as sort of a pause from the more dramatically grave moments.

Outdoor sequences, of random bombing and chaotic street fighting, and ruthless military discipline by German officers against German citizens, are just as grittily depicted as the bunker indoor scenes, which comprise most of the film.

Detailed postscript notes, describing the fate of the main characters, are most interesting from an historical standpoint. Many of the officers who survived went into captivity (by the Russians) and later committed suicide. However, at least a dozen of the protagonists lived a long life, some dying over the past two or three years of old age. Trail Junge herself died in February 2002, shortly after the showing of “Blind Spot” at the Berlin International Film Festival.

In recent years, there have been bad or mediocre films about Hitler, such as the American indie Max (about the young Hitler as a failed artist), the Russian movie Moloch, The Bunker, with Anthony Hopkins, the Robert Carlyle mini-series. However, Downfall is far superior to all of them–and curiously enough, also the most accessible and commercial one (despite its German language).

Offering a riveting look at the two weeks that literally changed the fate of the world, Downfall is a landmark film that benefits from a fresh, contemporaneous, and wide-ranging perspective.