"The triumph of Downfall arises from the ease with which it moves between history and personal drama."

Set in 1945, as the Third Reich crumbles and Russian troops move in on Berlin, Downfall follows the fate of Adolph Hitler and those close to him, letting the audience look on as military, political and personal issues collide.

Alexandra Maria Lara plays secretary Traudl Junge, who infamously said, after the war, that the extent of Hitler's crimes came as a shock because he had always been so kind to her. That kindness is very visible here, and has sparked a great deal of controversy, with critics protesting that this film attracts sympathy for a man - and a regime - deserving of none.

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It seems likely, however, that Hitler would have been more comfortable being portrayed as a ruthless monster than as the flawed and frantic human being he is here. Aggressive and unreasoning aspects of his personality are also on display - this joins the ranks of classic films about military leaders losing their grip on reality as things go wrong - but most impressive are the dinner party scenes where Hitler comes across as the sort of embarrassing relative one wishes one could avoid at Christmas, and it's clear that everyone else is anxious to escape.

Bruno Ganz turns in an astonishing performance as der Fuhrer, his physical mannerisms verging on the hilarious but his charisma and fierce temper demanding respect. The fear and pity which his companions feel are undercut by the simple affection he shares with Juliane Kohler's magnificent Eva Braun, whose passion and energy seem to be all that keeps anybody going.

The triumph of Downfall arises from the ease with which it moves between history and personal drama. Intermittent scenes of the butchery going on outside - as foolishly deployed troops are massacred and young children die trying to defend Berlin - keep us in touch with the big picture and the consequences of the central characters' actions. More intimately, the film becomes a portrait of a group of people trapped together in desperation, bound by a cult of personality, cracking up in different ways as it becomes increasingly apparent that most of them are going to die.

Corinna Harfouch is fascinating as Magda Goebbels, whose belief in National Socialism is so strong that she is prepared to kill her own children in a scene made more affecting by the suggestion that at least one child suspects her intent. As her husband, Ulrich Matthes is a ghostly presence, always present at der Fuhrer's right hand, willing to give up everything in order to be wanted there. Traudl Junge is a rare calm presence, and it is through her eyes that we see much of the drama unfold.

Although it is played absolutely straight, Downfall is full of black humour which it would probably never have got away with any other way. Most of this occurs in the form of references to the future, and it has the effect of emphasising the importance of these historical events to the present day. Necessary conversations about military matters, doubtless obscure to many viewers, are astutely managed; after a slow first half hour, the film builds up a sense of urgency which never lets go. Knowing how these characters met their ends does not diminish the story's grip.

From a technical point of view, Downfall is superb. Claustrophobic sets full of narrow passageways with low ceilings are lit in a manner at once realistic and incredibly difficult to do. The sound is similarly impressive. This carefully constructed environment makes everything more immediate. Far from being a dangerously sympathetic film, this is a work whose unflinching observations can bring home the ugliness of the war to generations uninterested in fuzzy black and white archive footage. It is a compelling examination of character and a successful presentation of history.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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German dramatisation of the last days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
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Read more Downfall reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray *****
Scott Macdonald ****1/2

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Writer: Bernd Eichinger, based on Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Inside Hitler's Bunker by Joachim Fest

Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Kohler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich, Thomas Kretschmann, Michael Mendl, Andre Hennicke, Ulrich Noethen, Donevan Gunia

Year: 2004

Runtime: 156 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany


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