Review: Downfall (2004)

I can think of few places that I would want to be less than in Adolph Hitler’s bunker during the last few weeks of the Third Reich. The Russians were approaching from the East, the Americans from the West, and the proud city of Berlin was quickly being reduced to rubble by invading forces. A few German armies outside the city still fought but were quickly being encircled. They were unable to assist Adolph Hitler in his final days. In April 1945, Hitler’s empire, which had at one time extended from the Russian Front to Northern Africa, was rapidly being reduced to a strip a thousand meters wide in downtown Berlin. Some Germans, including a boy on the edge of adolescence, rallied to defend the city. Many that did not were shot or hung as traitors. Artillery shells rained down on central Berlin. In the bunker beneath the city, the final remnants of the Third Reich catered to an increasingly dysfunctional Adolph Hitler, tried to reconcile the dichotomy between their devotion and their understanding that the Reich was ending, drank to excess, partied and fornicated.

At least that is the story presented by Traudi Junge in the movie Downfall. Junge was the personal secretary to Adolph Hitler, and lived with him in the bunker during those last days. She was one of a few to escape and lead something like a normal life afterwards. As played by Alexandra Marie Lara, Junge was a pretty, lithe and early twenty-something single woman dutifully devoted to the Fuehrer but blithely unaware just how evil her boss was. She also possessed an ability to remain largely unruffled by the chaos around her. These turned out to be useful survival skills in those final days. Somehow, despite the death outside and the dying and amputations inside the bunker she dutifully knew her place, always looking clean and fresh, and could faithfully take dictation or type when called asked.

The real Traudi Junge, who survived nearly to the 21st century, is interviewed at the start and conclusion of the film. This, and a brief scene near the start of the film capturing the night she was hired by Hitler, are virtually the only parts of this two and a half hour movie that do not occur in or around Hitler’s bunker. The film is disturbing for its high level of violence but like most fine great war movies feels uncannily accurate.

Hitler’s inner circle ranged from the fanatically devoted, to the pragmatic realists and to those who found escape in drinking or dancing. Hitler himself veers sharply between lucid and crazy. At times, he seems resigned to his defeat and at other times, he feels that he will somehow turn things around and resurrect the Third Reich. His mistress Eva Braun, on the other hand, is portrayed as something of morale officer. Knowing her end is imminent, she seems determined to dance, have fun and spread some cheer until the moment of death. You might say she fiddled while Berlin burned.

Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Adolph Hitler is chilling, intimate, memorable and feels eerily accurate. Hitler is not always portrayed as mad. At times, you see something in him resembling a common man. Mostly though he is a man consumed by passion, his ego and his feelings of righteousness. Faults ultimately lie in his staff and his generals, but never in himself.

The most chilling of many portrayals in this movie is probably Corinna Harfouch’s, who has the dubious privilege of portraying Mrs. Goebbels, the Ann Coulter of the Nazi Era. Mrs. Goebbels knows only unquestioned duty, so of course she dutifully drugs then poisons her own children as the end nears. If her children have to die, she figures, it is best if their mother does the evil deed. Yet, she is one of many memorable characters in this movie. The subject matter may be hard to endure, but once you begin watching Downfall, it is hard to turn it off. It is riveting.

Downfall thus is one of those really good but awful movies, excellently directed and acted but certain to churn your stomach if not empty it altogether. The end of this war is portrayed in all its garish horror. It should be hard to feel any sympathy but you do at times for men, women and children foolishly devoted to this wretch of a man, as well as the dutiful and patriotic soldiers doing their best in an impossible situation.

The movie was shot in German and is subtitled.

3.4 on my four-point scale.

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