It’s 1942. Adolf Hitler is at the zenith of power, supreme warlord of a Nazi empire stretching from the English Channel to the river Volga. The single most destructive conflict in the annals of human history is furiously raging on the steppes of Russia as a group of young women arrive at the gloomy East-Prussian forest of Rastenburg. Bavarian girl b Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is in a state of eager anticipation at the prospect of meeting her Fuehrer who is due inspect the group in order choose his new personal secretary. Three years later a nation awaits its downfall as the forces of the Soviet Red Army storm through the ruined shell of Berlin to deliver the Reich's death blow. Naïve Fraulein Junge bears testament to the disintegration of Hitler’s world within the claustrophobic confines of the bunker.
The Downfall caused quite a furore upon its domestic release due to its depiction of Hitler not as the venomous screeching newsreel demagogue but rather more accurately a man totally convinced of to his own self-rectitude, a man whose demonic charisma and magnetic power of presence plunged the world’s most civilised nation into an abyss of depravity. The viewer’s conception of Adolf as an inhuman monster is challenged. Long has it been comforting to disassociate him from the rest of humanity as some grotesque abomination, the devil made flesh, but before us is presented a broken old man on the verge of disaster with whom the audience might feel a twinge of sympathy until director Hirschbiegel deftly reminds his viewers of the unspeakable horror unleashed by so brutal and diseased a mind. By Jove Hirschbiegel has succeeded in doing the unthinkable and humanised Hitler!
Bruno Ganz delivers a veritable powerhouse performance as the besieged dictator; mannerisms, physical gesticulation and distinctively shrill voice are replicated to perfection creating the most convincing screen portrayal of the tyrant yet. Seen primarily through the eyes of his faithful secretary the narrative unfolds at a breakneck pace wholly immersing the viewer in a nightmarish world of heel-clicking absurdity and sudden violence. The entire production oozes faultless historical authenticity as one is introduced to a plethora of obsequious aides, jaded generals and Machiavellian Nazi party functionaries such as the odious SS chief Heinrich Himmler and his scheming creature Fegelein.
The suffering a of Berlin’s civilian populous during the final days is cleverly juxtaposed with the bacchanal excess of the National socialist Hierarchy, (the drunken lascivious revelry of an SS officers party is how one imagines Sodom looked before the fall), as Russian cannons obliterate all and sundry. Bunker scenes are permeated with a sense of ominous dread and impending doom as Hirschbiegel’s Steadicam glides from room to room capturing a parade of ashen faces whilst above ground the frantic tumult of combat rages as diehard Nazi's terrorise the citizenry. This leads us to the running motif of the piece, how the doctrine of Nazism seduced before ultimately devouring its own people. Thid is illustrated with chilling poignancy as Magda Goebbels systematically poisons her offspring lest they live on in a world without Hitler.
As a war drama The Downfall is a supremely polished, magnificently acted and gripping piece of entertainment. However it is extremely significant on another level as a positive affirmation to the power of cinema, a document of a nation beginning to exorcise its historical demons and find some sort of catharsis through direct confrontation of its recent dark past. An important and timely work.
The great Bruno Ganz is like a rage-filled spider this, steadily growing grayer and more decrepit, but the film is a wearying experience in its insistence to detail every aspect of Hitler and company's last days at withering length.