Downfall

Today marks 70 years since Nazi Germany admitted defeat in World War Two and surrendered unconditionally to the allies. Downfall documents the final days of the Third Reich inside Hitler’s bunker, based on the diaries of his secretary, Traudl Junge. This film aims first and foremost to bring the frantic final days of Hitler’s reign to life accurately. There’s a sense with some films based on real events that they’re not film-worthy (I’m looking at you, Social Network), or that extensive distortion is required to make them interesting, but Downfall benefits from having as its subject a period so genuinely full of drama, tension and horror that a simple rendering of events makes for gripping viewing. Events are mostly shown from the perspective of Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), who is probably the most innocent character in the film (except the Goebbels children). An interview with the real life Junge is used as the film’s opening, and she is shown still struggling with what she was a part of. As a hapless young woman she became a part of Nazi Germany without question, but she is ultimately more human than the fanatics she was surrounded by. Lara gives a fantastic performance in this role, but is eclipsed by Bruno Ganz as Hitler who spits and splutters his way through the furious outbursts that have made this film famous. The Nazis in the film come in varying degrees of loyalty, from those openly plotting surrender to the allies to those who will obey their fürhrer’s commands even after his death. And it’s this that makes it so fascinating. They range from Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), occasionally termed by historians as the ‘good Nazi’ for his willingness to accept guilt at Nuremberg, who admits to ignoring Hitler’s orders for months; to chief fanatic, propagandist Josef Goebbels (played by the identical-looking Ulrich Matthes) whose unflinching loyalty to his leader comes before all else. The focus of the film on such a short time period allows for a more nuanced look at the high-ranking Nazis than the caricatures we’re used to seeing. On this point, some have criticised the film. Its detractors have claimed it tries to humanise Hitler, with some even arguing it could serve as a recruitment film for neo-Nazis. This is an absurd suggestion, not least because Hitler spends his final days ranting and raving, deluded about the ability of his armies to regain control of the situation, cursing the German people he claimed to love, and believing that he single-handedly conquered Europe with the treachery of everyone else to blame for the failure of his conquest. This is far from the fine leader I assume neo-Nazis believe Hitler to be. It is true, however, that there are moments in the film where Hitler appears less than monstrous. He is kind and sympathetic to the women around him and he enjoys hearing children singing German folk songs. Do we need to believe Hitler never had so much as a pleasant interaction with someone to believe he was one of history’s greatest tyrants? Of course not. If he was never remotely pleasant to anyone it’s hard to believe he would ever have convinced millions of people to vote for him or built himself up from being virtually homeless. And is there any amount of Hitler being kind to people that could make a reasonable person take a more sympathetic view towards him? Of course not. Even if the film was two hours of home movies, with him washing his car and baking cookies I assume this wouldn’t change most people’s opinion of the man. So these criticisms have little sway over an in-depth character study like this. The film is a tour-de-force of acting, directing, sets, costume and writing. It perfectly captures the claustrophobia and terror of the bunker, with soldiers drinking their way through their final days as the Red Army approaches. It is a superb dramatisation of an incredibly difficult topic and captures the horror and the brutality of the regime’s highest-ranking members without caricaturing them. This is a film so good not even countless awful internet parodies could ruin it – and you can’t say better than that.

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2 responses to “Downfall

  1. Pingback: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? | Screen Goblin·

  2. Pingback: Seconds | Screen Goblin·

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