Downfall (2004, Germany, Oliver Hirschbiegel)
Hitler’s last days, as told through the eyes of his young and relatively naïve secretary Trudl Junge (Alexandria Maria Lara), is the premise of Downfall. Apparently the first German-made film to attempt to understand these the darkest days of recent history, the film, despite some structural defects and tonal inconsistencies, proves worthy of the accolades heaped upon it.
Downfall’s cinema verite style is occasionally at odds with it’s dramatic structure, as the documentary feel of the majority of scenes in the Fuhrenbunker clash mightily with the socially-conscientious moments in the battle field, particularly when the director gets all Spielberg on us, both visually and melodramatically, by following the fate of a 12 year old Hitler Youth (all that’s missing is to clothe the boy in some computer generated colour-enhanced red garb). The director also borrows visually and thematically from Visconti’s The Damned, particularly when counterpointing the decadence of many who live in the Fuhrer’s bunker with the horrific reality of the soldiers dying so needlessly in above-ground bunkers mere yards away. And while it is certainly an effective technique, there are moments of contrast—children being rent apart by mortar moments after the servants set out the china for an evening meal in the bunker-- that feel a little too convenient and contrived.
Of all those who inhabit the bunker with Hitler, the Goebbel’s family prove the most interesting. They are this film’s von Trapp’s, a clutch of precious children singing nursery rhymes and bedtime tunes for the entertainment of the faithful. Papa Goebbels is a loyal soldier right to the bitter end, while Frau Goebbel’s slavish devotion to Hitler and the ideals of National Socialism builds to the movie’s most potent and memorable moment, when the mother gives way to the ideologue and murders her lovelies in their sleep rather than have them live in a world where all of their Nazi ideals have been crushed. In what could have been both a thankless and one-note role, Corinna Harfouch, an actress with whom I am completely unfamiliar, makes a deep and marked impression here as Frau Goebbels. In the above-mentioned passage, worthy of the best horror story, and which makes much of the rest of the film pale by comparison, she gives a terribly human performance.
All of which is not to say that Downfall is unsuccessful: Far from it. The film is an eerie and effective recreation of Nazi Germany’s final days, due in no small part to the remarkable performance by Bruno Ganz, that great Spencer Tracy-like potato-faced actor, who captures well both the humanity and demagoguery of the man. The queer sense that I got of watching Nero fiddle while Rome burns is keenly observed in a variety of well-paced and darkly perverse scenes in the bunker, particularly when soldiers and secretaries, officers and their consorts drink, dance and cavort while Berlin falls to the Russians. While the film sometimes takes on a bit more than it can chew, with more characters and story lines than time and space to due them all justice, it is nonetheless rarely less than compelling.