Downfall (2004)

*. Because it’s a foreign language film and also because of when it came out Downfall is most widely known today as the source for countless parodies of the scene where Hitler flies into a rage at his officers, the subtitles changed to make it seem like he’s complaining about any one of the many absurdities of modern life. These “Hitler rants” are the film’s greatest legacy. It’s funny how these things work out.
*. But then meltdowns, getting to watch someone else totally lose their shit, are funny. I don’t think the subtitles needed to be changed for Hitler’s rant to make us laugh. There’s something all too human about someone coming totally undone.
*. This was, in turn, part of director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “new approach” to the material. There had already been several films dealing with the last days of Hitler (Alec Guiness and Anthony Hopkins had both played the Fuhrer), but Hirschbiegel wanted to present the monkeys in the monkey house (to use Hugh Trevor-Roper’s image) not as caricatures or monsters but as human beings. So Hitler has meltdowns. He has tremors from Parkinson’s. And he even at one point cries.
*. Plus he’s played by Bruno Ganz, whose face has all the droopy, pathetic sadness of a Basset Hound. You can’t help feel sorry for his Hitler, at least until he starts talking. Then you realize that he doesn’t care about anything but himself.
*. I don’t mind such an approach, as I think it was a responsible decision. Evil Nazis have become such a stock type on screen I don’t find them interesting at all. I prefer historical dramas that let me think about these things for myself, supplemented by my own readings on the subject.

*. A film like Downfall pins a lot on its historical accuracy. It’s based most directly on Joachim Fest’s Inside Hitler’s Bunker (whose original German title was Der Untergang, which is the same as the German title of this film). It also draws on (while taking liberties with) various memoirs of some of the players, including those of Traudl Junge (the secretary), Ernst-Günther Schenck (the doctor), and Albert Speer. We can thus expect a bit more accuracy than in other versions of the story, while at the same time being on our guard. Is it any surprise that Junge, Schenck, and Speer are three of the most sympathetic figures we see? They are the ones telling the story.
*. Overall, however, it seems to me a fairly accurate portrayal. Some details that might have been interesting were left out, like Hitler’s addiction to chocolate and cake. There are also moments I didn’t buy. Eva Braun as the life of the party, even getting up on a table to dance? I have a hard time believing that happened. I also dug in my heels a bit over the generally positive view taken of Wilhelm Mohnke. I think he was a zealot as bad as the worst of this bunch.
*. It’s not that Hirschbiegel wasn’t well aware of the darker side of even the “noble Nazis” (the flip side of the evil Nazi stereotype). As he points out on his commentary, Speer was an utterly compromised figure and Mohnke had that business with killing POWs in his past. But every story needs some kind of hero, and the moral gloom of the surroundings makes any relative light seem to shine a bit brighter.

*. The bunker itself is nicely realized as a physical space, with the camera tracking along its bare hallways in a way that evokes the trenches in Paths of Glory and the sub in Das Boot. The gradual unraveling is also well done, with the uniforms becoming more ragged, the men not shaving, and everyone starting to drink and smoke a lot more (the rules against smoking in the bunker being flagrantly ignored).
*. It’s a commonplace of post-War historiography that the primary meaning of the Second World War has become the Holocaust. Still, it comes as some surprise when reference to this gets introduced into the film at the very end. I don’t think many of the people in the bunker during the final days were thinking of the fate of the Jews. One feels as though there is some shoehorning going on, and it wasn’t necessary given this wasn’t a movie about the Holocaust at all.
*. The horror of the regime is conveyed effectively enough in the terrible scene where the Goebbels children are killed by their parents. Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels is the closest the film allows itself to come to caricature, looking like a pale goblin who is already half dead. Which I suppose in an almost literal sense he was. Still, that’s a shocking scene and I think tells us all we need to know about the morality of the regime. This is what a real dead end looks like, and what it feels like too.

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