This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
It’s easy to spot the portion of the multiplex crowd who’ve walked out of Downfall, or Der Untergang in its native tongue. They’re the ones in a reverential, contemplative and awed silence. Downfall is one of the most powerful and brilliant (in the true sense of the word, not the throwaway Timmy Malletism of our playground days) movies committed to celluloid. I’m not convinced I have the words to cover this film, but I’ve never let a basic lack of competence get in my way before.
This is the story of the final few days of the Third Reich, told from the recollections of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). Three days before the eventual surrender, the massive Soviet Army advances on an underdefended Berlin. By any conceivable measure, the city is lost. Surrender would be the sensible option, but as shown in Downfall ‘sensible’ is not an adjective that could be readily applied to Hitler’s state of mind.
There is, I believe, little point going into the exact chronological details. They’ll be more accurately relayed in any number of historical textbooks, and it’s not as though I’ve any revolutionary state secrets to reveal. More important is to say how these facts are relayed through one of the most compelling movies ever made. The crux of the piece is Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Adolf Hitler of which I don’t think it’s possible to speak highly enough of. After half an hour or so it becomes difficult to remember what the real Hitler looked like, so scarily convincing is he. His wild-eyed ranting never descends into parody, evoking shades of the oratory that proved so crowd pleasing at Nuremburg mixed with the skewed, repugnant ideology National Socialism embodied. It’s not afraid to show Hitler, on a few occasions as having a tender side, often in stark contrast to his thoughts on even his own loyal people. In short, human, albeit a horrible, insane, evil human.
Bizarrely people pick up on this as a weakness, as though it’s making an apology for him. This is madness, or at least misunderstanding. This is a film showing Hitler happy to sacrifice every civilian in Berlin as an acceptable loss on the basis that they weren’t good enough for his tenets. The German people were tested and failed, so deserve no compassion, he believed. A Hitler who claimed his greatest achievement as the Holocaust. What this film shows is that Hitler was a man, nothing more, who guided and manipulated a sentiment that was already present. He was not a mythical creature sent as an agent from Hell; a one-off that could never rise again. He was a man, just like approximately half of the world. This could happen again. These facts must be remembered.
It’s not all about Hitler, although the nucleus of the remnants of command necessarily revolve around him. Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) sees the writing on the wall and clears out of Berlin early doors, but diehard supporter and all-star psychotic Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) stays with Hitler past the bitter end. If anything Goebbels is shown as more unbalanced than Hitler, his unwavering belief in the cause incomprehensible and his collaboration with his equally ideologically batty wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) to murder his six young children on the basis that a world without National Socialism wouldn’t be good enough for their future is as horrific a microcosm of the insanity of the Third Reich as any conceivable.
If there’s one thing that was worrying me about this film, it was how it could show the horror of war effectively enough when every other film that even tangentially mentions a conflict has to show it as well. When even glossy mid-budget throwaway action flicks like Behind Enemy Lines can’t resist having someone hiding in a mass grave to escape search parties, how could even a film with it so vital to the work portray it without seeming somewhat thunder-stolen? I needn’t have worried. Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel), as well as providing the necessary function of showing that not everyone in a German military uniform was a raving lunatic with no compassion for fellow humans, winds up doing his best to care for the overwhelming numbers of wounded soldiers and civilians in a city with scarce medical supplies. His initial entrance to a vastly overcrowded, understaffed hospital shows the terrible cost of the fighting better than any film I’ve ever seen. Harrowing, shocking and moving – it brought me the closest to tears of any movie I’ve witnessed.
A thousand words and I’m only scratching the surface what this film shows. Perhaps I should skim through the rest of the details, even if I leave out the other sub-stories of people caught up in this epoch-defining time. As Berlin falls under invasion and artillery fire, the street level fighting and it’s effects are shown as realistically as you’d expect and certainly come as close as I want to be to real warfare. There isn’t a whiff of a bad performance in this film. Exemplary stuff all round, and when performances like Ganz’s stand out it’s because of individual brilliance, not slovenly company.
As well as it shows what happened at the death of the Nazi regime, what elevates Downfall to become something far more meaningful is how it forces you to comprehend the scale of what happened those sixty years ago. The suffering, the pain, the vast, incomprehensible number of deaths – it’s overwhelming. Downfall is not comfortable watching, but it’s something we all should watch purely for this reason. Lighthearted Kraut-bashing for a period was something of a Hollywood fad for a time (see Kelly’s Heroes), but after watching Downfall it’s difficult to see how anyone can make light of what happened during humanities darkest days.
Despite the bleak nature, Downfall winds up being oddly uplifting. It’s certainly effective at forcing some perspective on your current problems. Suddenly not being able to get a Master System emulator working on my GP32 and struggling with CSS incompatibilities seem all the more insignificant. On exiting the screening a quirk of fate saw Nirvana playing throughout the lobby; never before has Kurt Cobain sounded so like a whining, overwrought, melodramatic, trivial little schoolboy. We are all, without exception, so damn lucky to be alive, now, in a time of relative peace and certainly prosperity. We are blessed, but this is why this reminder of how bad things could be is so necessary. Never forget.