Adapted from two best-selling German tomes, including the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge (who was also the subject of the 2002 documentary “Blind Spot”). “Downfall” attempts to examine what happened in the final two weeks inside the Fuhrerbunker, under the German Chancellery deep in the heart of Berlin. By April 20, 1945, the early victories of World War II were a distant memory. The overextended Nazi troops had been in continual retreating for more than two years, many of the concentration camps had been liberated and the Russian army was closing in on the capital city, practically reduced to rubble, from all sides. Yet, inside the bunker, Der Fuhrer confers with his closest ministers, planning a series of troop movements that he knows will destroy the advancing Soviets and breathe new life into his armies. Outside of Josef Goebbels, however, the majority of the SS hierarchy knows the end is near, and do what they each feel is right for their situation to prepare for the next step. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s Interior Minister, felt the best option would be for Hitler to leave Berlin and allow himself to negotiate a peace treaty with the Americans on behalf of the Fuhrer. Himmler seeks the help of his right hand man, Herman Fegelein, who is also the brother-in-law of Eva Braun, to urge Hitler to flee the capital. Even Albert Speer suggests to Hitler the evacuation of the bunker, to not only save himself but the city and its people from the impending destruction. All these pleas fall on deaf ears, as Hitler believes the bombing of the city will make it easier to begin reconstruction once Germany has emerged victorious. But despite his seemingly incalculable faith in his plans, Hitler does concede to Speer that he must be triumphant or face his downfall, ordering his Minister of Armaments to leave nothing but scorched earth for their adversaries.
On the surface, the situation continues to deteriorate. The depleted Nazis forces, the true believers who haven’t retreated from the city, continue to fight with the help of the Volksstrum militia and members of the Hitler Youth, do their best to keep the Soviets at bay, with little success. Bands of SS death squads roam the city, hanging anyone suspected of aiding the enemy. Even Eva Bruan and Magda Goebbles are unable to take a quick stroll in the Chancellery Garden just outside the bunker without the constant bombardment of Russian artillery. Realizing the situation is truly lost without any hope of success, Hitler marries his longtime lover Braun and prepares for their suicide and ordering his men to continue fighting for the fatherland until the bitter end.
Even those who are well versed in the history of the Third Reich will likely be heavily upset by the final half hour of “Downfall,” as the swift collapse is captured in all its bloody ferocity and horror, as a number of people in the bunker commit suicide as they recognize the bankruptcy of their ideological fanaticism. And while it is somewhat cathartic to watch these historical demons show their true cowardice colors and do themselves in, the film also forces the viewers to confront their own predispositions about evil, as they watch Magda Goebbles poison her six young children, all between the ages of four and twelve, because she refuses to allow them to grow up in a world without National Socialism.
Director Hirschbiegel, whose powerful 2001 film “Das Experiment” was virtually ignored in the States, strongly and evenly handles the brutality and the relative tenderness of the characters, deftly walking that nearly impossible line of showing these historical monsters as deeply flawed human beings while never quite making them sympathetic characters. Some may argue making Adolf Hitler and members of his inner circle imperfect people, instead of a one-dimensional tyrant and a group of sycophantic power-mad bootlickers, could produce a benign empathy of them and their actions, but indubitably that they were flesh and blood like ourselves makes them even more immoral. Bruno Ganz, the great Swiss actor best known in America as the fallen angel Damiel in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film “Wings of Desire,” loses himself in his depiction of this famous man as an amiable sociopath, who can effortlessly turn from an affectionate embrace of his pet dog Blondie to a foaming rant about the need to follow his instructions implicitly in the blink of an eye, getting each subtle nuance, such as Der Fuhrer’s softly trembling left hand, just so.
The most striking aspect of the production is the massive and intricate Bunker set, designed by Bernd Lepel and built on the same soundstages where Wolfgang Petersen shot his innovative World War II movie “Das Boot.” That the set, said to be a complete and authentically dressed replica of the 13th and final Fuhrerbunker, was fully built with unmovable walls and fixed ceilings adds to the uncomfortable closed-in atmosphere, like rats trapped in an inescapable maze, which must have affected the mental being of these people in their final days.
But in the end, what, if anything, can audiences take away from “Downfall” that they didn’t already have walking inr For all its impressive technical achievements, extraordinary detail to authentic reproduction of a specific moment in history and exemplary lead performance, the film really adds nothing to the already existing and massive lexicon of Nazi history. Humanity will never forget the atrocities of the Third Reich, and the fact this film was the first German movie to directly examine Hitler since the 1950s will make it little more than a curious postscript when the initial excitement about the film passes and it too becomes a part of history. Worth a single watch, but with ample preparation.Rating: B-