The German film Downfall details, rather unflinchingly, the horrific and often bizarre last twelve days of the Nazi regime during April and May of 1945. By now, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) has retreated to the bunker as Stalin’s forces encircle the city of Berlin. Bent and infirm, he is no longer the beer hall firebrand of the early Nazi era.
The last few holdouts like Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) and Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), gather around the Führer as he orders counter attacks by armies that exist only in his fevered imagination. His generals attempt to convince him that there is no hope and they should appeal to the western powers to broker a peace. Hitler and a few fanatical yes-men like Goebbels squash any such attempts at reason.
All of this is seen mostly through the eyes of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s somewhat naive secretary. Her viewpoint is both an insider’s and an outsider’s. She is privy to much that goes on around the German dictator but is not a party to it. Indeed, as the movie progresses the veil is starting to lift from her eyes and she is beginning to understand how both she and Germany were deceived by this madman.
Other points of view are presented as well. One of the few generals left fighting the Soviets finds out that, due to false rumors that he has retreated, he is to be shot for cowardice. But we he reports to the bunker to accept his punishment like a good soldier, the story takes an even more bizarre, and darkly ironic, turn. A boy not even in his teens enlists to fight the Soviets. Through his eyes, we see the sheer hopelessness of the situation as well as the capricious cruelty of the Nazi diehards. Any move toward peace or retreat can still earn you a noose around the neck or a bullet in the head. Finally, an SS doctor sneaks into a hospital in Soviet territory to recover badly needed drugs and finds a ward full of abandoned patients.
In the meantime, Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) walks a tightrope, remaining loyal to Hitler while sabotaging the Führer’s “scorched earth” policy toward Germany. All the while, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) parties like it’s 1945. The Fuhrer’s mistress is portrayed as the ultimate social climber. You’re left with the impression that she saw Hitler as simply the highest rung on the Nazi social ladder. Marry the Führer and everyone would come to her parties.
Even after Hitler exits the stage, the horror does not end. Magda Goebbels’ (Corinna Harfouch) “final solution” to keep her children from living in “a world without National Socialism” is one of the more chilling scenes I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid.
Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler is one of the more daring and nuanced performances I’ve seen, and it’s in those nuances that Downfall provoked a modest firestorm of controversy because of its almost intimate view of Hitler in his last days. In between the tantrums and the paranoid rants, Hitler shows moments of kindness and even tenderness to Traudl and others. People worried that this movie would “humanize” Hitler and somehow make him less of a monster. I think that exactly the opposite reaction is appropriate. To deny the basic truth that Adolf Hitler was, above all, a human being who sprang from the same gene pool as you or I, is to deny an even more difficult truth: that he was not entirely unique. Others like him could spring from our midst just as he did. In fact, others have.
Having viewed Hotel Rwanda shortly before seeing this film, I was left with the following question: Were the Hutu extremists who perpetrated the massacre of the Tutsi minority really all that different in their psychological makeup from the architects of the Nazi Holocaust? The degree of hatred and the energy channeled through it were staggering, even to those of us who can recall the chilling statistics of the Nazi death camps. The Hutu militia killed almost 800,000 in three months, using only guns and machetes. Even with their industrialization of slaughter that the Nazis engineered, it took them a few years before they were murdering people at that rate.
Thus Downfall is both a superb film and a film with an important message. The evil done by what are, in the end, ordinary people is far more horrifying than any bogey man could be.