It’s the spring of 1945. Berlin has been reduced to rubble, the Russians are overrunning the city, 10-year-old kids are fighting alongside soldiers in the streets, ordinary Germans are turning on one another with a desperate viciousness. The once-proud citizenry of a once-proud nation has been completely demoralized. And the reaction from the nation’s leadership? “The German people chose their fate,” Joseph Goebbels says with a shrug. After all, they elected the man who is just about finished destroying them.
There’s a mesmerizing train-wreck aspect to Downfall, the potent portrait of the innermost circles of the Third Reich during its final days that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. You may know all the facts and details already—how Hitler and his closest advisers hunkered underground in Berlin, and how the Führer committed suicide when abject defeat seemed imminent. But it’s impossible to look away from the gloomy descent into final, total insanity, dramatized without embellishment or theatrical flourishes.
It’s all so briskly direct and straightforward, in fact, that you’re tempted to see not madness but something much more... well, hardly sympathetic, but understandable: fear. Amidst the subdued panic and massive denial in the little society of the Berlin bunker, here’s Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) throwing wild parties while Russian artillery rattles their shelter; maybe she was a little bit mad, but mostly we see her a scared child, unwilling or unable to confront reality. On the other hand, Magda Goebbels—played with a fierce, gruesome conviction by Corinna Harfouch—is clearly a twisted old bat. The scene in which she murders her own children rather than letting them live without National Socialism is quietly horrifying.
But even more audacious is the source of the film’s provocative power: director Oliver Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Bernd Eichinger (working from multiple sources, including Joachim C. Fest’s book Inside Hitler’s Bunker) dare to speculate that while Adolf Hitler may have been insane, he was hardly a monster. It’s true that when it becomes clear even to the Führer that things are falling apart, he appears not to want to acknowledge it. He laments that he had “such plans... for the world,” as if it were his to play with, and continues ordering his generals to do completely implausible things with armies that no longer exist.
But even when he’s screaming and raving, he’s never the cartoonish lunatic we’re familiar with from his public speeches. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz based his performance on a secretly recorded tape of Hitler chatting casually at a private dinner party, and there is a terrifying ordinariness to his depiction of the man. It’s hardly a contrast to the everyday sweetness of his personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), a nice girl-next-door whose willful ignorance is emblematic of Germany as a whole. The film is partly based on her memoirs and interviews; she was present for it all, a wide-eyed naïf for whom Hitler had an avuncular affection, and we see him much through her innocent eyes. (For a heartbreaking look at the guilt-ridden old woman the young secretary became, see the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, a long series of videotaped interviews the real Junge gave just before her death a few years ago.)
The idea that the man whose name has become synonymous with evil may have been in many ways all too normal removes him from a realm of historical rarity, and suggests that his like is never too far from appearing again. That Downfall is a German production suggests a burgeoning willingness on the country’s part to reexamine its Nazi era with a fresh, unjaundiced eye and the dispassion that the long passage of time allows. And it’s a necessary reexamination not just for the German people, because there’s a startling relevance to Downfall, too, in the reminder of how a once-enlightened country can go crazy. This may well become a necessary bookend for any other film about World War II in Europe, if only as a reminder of how common “evil” can be.
DOWNFALL ***.5 Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Juliane Kohler. Rated R