CERT: 15, 150 MINS While British television viewers might be used to a non-stop diet of films about the Third Reich, the subject has understandably been unmentionable in Germany. But now a new generation of Germans are not just confronting their dark past, but positively badgering it. After Das Boot and Stalingrad, here is the country’s first major film about the Führer himself.
Downfall focuses on the last days in Hitler’s bunker, from the Nazi leader’s 56th birthday celebrations on April 20 (not as muted as one might think; in fact done in an air of insane unreality) until his joint suicide with Eva Braun 10 days later. Based both on the works of the world’s foremost Hitlerologist, Joachim Fest, and the account of his secretary Traudl Junge, the film opens at Junge’s job interview with Hitler back in 1942. It is difficult to convey the qualities that made people so want to follow this deranged man; apart from the moral fears, Hitler’s charisma was untranslatable, and to English-speakers he has always appeared barmy. But Bruno Ganz effortlessly captures it, as well as the personal kindness he showed to underlings (while annihilating whole populations). In the opening scene, Junge is understandably nervous with the typewriter – this is no ordinary shorthand test, her examiner is Adolf Hitler. “Don’t worry, you’ll never make as many typing mistakes as me,” the Führer reassures her.
Fast-forward to the last days, which we see spread over a gruelling two-and-a-half hours. Everywhere there is chaos; a lone humanitarian doctor answers the phone in a deserted government building; a father tries to stop his children dying in a fruitless battle with the Russians; and utterly callous die-hard SS men wander about killing just for fun. Inside the bunker itself an atmosphere of total despair is mixed with hedonism: some drink themselves into a laughing stupor, some blow their brains out, while others are simply catatonic. The leader himself, who had forced so much suffering on mankind, is now a pathetic old man, shaking with Parkinson’s and ranting about dreams that won’t happen. And despite the fact that, as human beings, we are drawn towards pity, there is no doubt in this film that he deserves everything he is getting.
At the dining table, Hitler explains the outlook that he held throughout his adult life: that showing humanity is “priest’s drivel” and that compassion is alien to human nature. When a general pleads with him to spare the civilians the worst effects of the battle, he simply replies: “In this war there are no civilians.” Only with his architect Albert Speer, for whom Hitler had semiromantic feelings, is there any sort of humanity. Their final parting is almost touch ing, with a tear streaming down this massmurderer’s face on being told Speer did not carry out his orders of mass killing.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has assembled a mighty thespian ensemble to portray the rogue’s gallery of 1945. Joseph Goebbels, both fanatical and cynical in his wasted life, blames the Germans in a way that suggests the film-makers are trying to avoid the charge of making their countrymen the victims: “The German people chose their fate. They gave us a mandate!” As well as being a ruthless Nazi, he is also a tiresome bore to be around in meetings, displaying blind optimism when the Russians are only a few hundred metres away. Actor Ulrich Matthes is helped by having a face that only his mother could love – the man looks half dead. There are character actors, and then there’s Matthes. With that face and accent, Hollywood producers will be queuing up to cast him in villainous roles. His wife is excellently portrayed, as is the silly Eva Braun. Magda Goebbels’ poisoning of her six children is done in heartbreaking detail, right down to her eldest child’s suspicious pleading.
Why should we care in these depths of mass destruction? Perhaps because there was so much evil in Nazi Germany that the human mind needs these micro-horrors to compute the greater tragedy. Utterly heartbreaking, and yet neither self-pitying nor sanctimonious, this joint German-Russian film should be watched by all Europeans just to remind us how lucky we are.