DOWNFALL may as well be the first film to have intimately told the story of the Second World War from the point of view of the Germans, most especially the infamous Fuehrer Adolf Hitler. Bruno Ganz is electrifying as Hitler, and in DOWNFALL you can effectively see how a person who is regarded everywhere as a monster, is also respected by the people in his inner circle.
Of course, there are also traitors to the Third Reich, those who saw the impending doom and surrendered to the invading Russians. As in other films, most especially Bryan Singer’s VALKYRIE, we can see that even Nazis had distaste for Hitler’s policy.
DOWNFALL tells the last ten days of Adolf Hitler’s life. It begins on Hitler’s birthday, where the Russians greeted him with a siege on Berlin. Hitler and his men are forced to remain underground, and this is where all the tension starts.
Hitler’s amour Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) insists on partying and drinking to forget their sorrows; meanwhile, Braun’s brother-in-law Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) urges her to leave Berlin, to no avail. Fegelein goes missing, and soon enough it is revealed that his boss, Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) has surrendered to Russians. Hitler reaches the end of his rope, and is most heartbroken, because he trusted Himmler the most.
DOWNFALL can also be noted for its portrayal of Hitler’s inner circle during those last ten days as a sort of a normal family, fighting for survival. In fact, the Germans appear to be the victims in this film, if only to look in a wider perspective; and I liked that Hirschbiegel turned the tables and heavily emphasized the struggle of the Germans. This is the first of its kind, and it is astonishing achievement.
The film is also a huge moral playground. You might squirm for the terrible thing Magda Goebbels (Joseph Goebbels’ wife, played by Corinna Harfouch) did to her children, but it also begs the question “what would you have done if you were in her place?”
All these are seen through the eyes of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), who serves as a passive victim to Hitler’s madness. Lara gives a gentle touch to her character, balancing Ganz’s ferocious and firm portrayal of Hitler.
The film’s success can be credited to its heavy research. Around six different books were used as reference, which explains the film’s authentic feel. It’s like you yourself has been with Hitler in that bunker.
There was a brief moment where Hitler was stripped bare of all his crime, and presented as a human being also capable of compassion, which is a clever addition because it makes Hitler two-dimensional, not just words in a history textbook. Soon enough Hitler goes insane and screams orders and curses at the top of his lungs. For your appreciation, here is the actual line in the movie (the movie is in German, which gives authenticity all the more):
“That was an order! Steiner's assault was an order! Who do you think you are to dare disobey an order I give? So this is what it has come to! The military has been lying to me. Everybody has been lying to me, even the SS! Our generals are just a bunch of contemptible, disloyal cowards... Our generals are the scum of the German people! Not a shred of honour! They call themselves generals. Years at military academy just to learn how to hold a knife and fork! For years, the military has hindered my plans! They've put every kind of obstacle in my way! What I should have done... was liquidate all the high-ranking officers, as Stalin did!”