Sinead Keane reviews one of German cinema’s masterpieces, Downfall. Released in 2004, the film follows the emotionally complex course of Adolf Hitler’s final days.
The main action takes place in the Führerbunker in which, buried deep beneath the rapidly falling streets of Berlin, we see the Nazi leadership make the final decisions of the Second World War. In between we are also given glimpses of Berlin as the Nazi defence of the city is falling apart and ordinary German’s are desperately running for their lives not knowing when or where the next Allied bomb will fall.
In the bunker, Hitler; phenomenally played by the wonderful Bruno Ganz, is slowly being abandoned by his once loyal cronies. The unexpected highlight of the film is the performance of Ganz who seems to pour his every being into the role. It was this portrayal that was most controversial upon the film’s release in Germany, with some voicing concern that Ganz portrayed Hitler as too human. His depiction of Hitler as a deeply flawed man makes the film in its entirety all the more chilling by showing how easily any of us can become degenerate, hate filled, and evil.
The film is a dramatic adaptation of the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge and opens with a clip from the 2002 Austrian documentary ‘Blind Spot’. Junge was present during the final days of the government of the Third Reich and typed Hitler’s last will and testament. In the clip, as we see later throughout the film, she discusses her blind loyalty and devotion to Hitler, forgoing the chance to escape as the Allies close in on the city and later accepting a vial of cyanide poison from him. In a powerful moment Junge, who filmed the documentary shortly before her death, concedes that she should have known more about the crimes of the Hitler regime but she was in awe of the power that Nazi officials held.
The film provokes a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer due to its airless, confined setting. However high tension and lashings of intrigue, particularly from a pathetic Eva Braun, breaks this and allows us to come up for air. To celebrate Hitler’s birthday, she emerges from the bunker in an elegant evening dress with her hangers-on to have a party with champagne corks popping and music and dancing. When the room that they are celebrating in is bombed, she dances on in the ruins. Later, when her brother in law tells her to leave Berlin; she chooses not to, despite knowing full well the consequences of this decision. The performance of Juliane Köhler in the role garners sympathy from the viewer.
The most shocking scenes in the film are reserved for Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) and her six children. Magda does not want to live in a world without National Socialism so she does the unthinkable and murders her own children with cyanide poison, lying to them by telling them they are taking sleeping pills. The scene in which eldest daughter Helga sees her mother’s lies and desperately tries to fight her off is genuinely appalling; if it fails to bring even a tear to your eye you’re a stronger person then me.
Downfall is a hugely important film, not only for showing just how awful Hitler and the leadership of Nazi Germany were but for opening up conversation on the such a difficult topic and reminding us how easily racism, xenophobia and hatred can rise up when we least expect. A fitting lesson in the modern age.