"Oliver Hirschbiegel creates a film which refuses to play fast and loose with history, and allows it to take as long as it has to."

Perhaps it's a mildly unhealthy desire to delve into the dark history of man, but there's something utterly fascinating about Nazi history. Just how did a single man sweep a nation with a morally corrupt and evil regime. The most singularly malevolent man of our age. And we all search for the answers to questions - why were millions of people deemed unfit to continue living, and given uncountable, hideous death sentences through madness and eventually, rampant racism? And what kind of regime does it become, when it begins falling apart at the seams as it's leader mentally implodes. Can a movie deliver this? Downfall tries to provide some of the latter answers, but cannot begin to answer the former.

Downfall is an impeccably crafted piece of recreated history - one of the few major accounts of the final days of the Nazi regime under the Führer. Sobering, riveting, powerful and so utterly fascinating, Bruno Ganz's (going from a sad angel in Wim Wender's famous Wings of Desire) persona as Adolf Hitler reveals a hideous, disturbed humanity in the dictator who's inexplicable charisma powered the most repulsive sociological machine in our long and violent history.

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Ganz, in an absolute powerhouse performance, hammers home the diseased madness which drives him, flaying spittle in his howling, fitful rants about the inadequacy of Germany's officers and the unworthiness of its people for his "great artistic cause". And yet, his is not without a fair amount of creepy charm. Is it a good thing to humanise a man who makes Bin Laden's religious hatred and destruction look like a mere infant's work..?

Downfall is presented as the memories of Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, a young woman, selected by Hitler in the film's opening scene. Through bookending voiceover, it attempts to explain how and why she chose to become and remain a part of the Nazi engine. "I make lots of mistakes during dictation", the Führer remarks during her interview, in one of the film's few pieces of telling dramatic irony. Although, for clarity, moments are presented from which Junge was not present, to connect the narrative for the audience - an essential process, due to the volume of story presented.

It is through Ganz's performance that it becomes clear just how hopelessly dependent the regime became on a man who was clearly beyond all sane hope. He stares at a strategic map of the strongpoints of the city, placing squadrons which are inadaquately manned to assault the Red Army. He frequently screams ultimatums at his subordinates, and demands their blood when they inevitably fail to mobilise, having anethesthised himself to compassion that might impair his sick judgement, considering it a cancerous weakness. The film reveals him as a petulant child, given absolute authority.

Later on, as the delusion deepens, we find him at dinner, openly inventing squadrons and air force units which don't exist, threateningly asking those loyal to him to commandeer these fictional units. And most chillingly of all, asking his closest members to kill themselves rather than be captured. The Goebbels (the six children refer to the Führer as "Uncle Hitler") take these ideals to their end. "I do not want our children to live in a world without National Socialism," says a resting Frau Goebbels. It is in this charismatic power, that Hitler's true strength lay.

The film has multiple parallel storylines, with more than 20 major speaking roles, requiring considerable investment to follow, from Hitler's generals, through to the infantry youth and civilians. Indeed, it is a film almost entirely constructed from controlled personal relationships, even when the Führer is deliriously free from control of anything - especially himself.

When the film involves gunfighting and artillery, it is usually brief and with a bloody aftermath, with a surgeon team more resembling a hopelessly overworked butcher. The citizens of Berlin are given even less respect by their leader than their enemies, which is best demonstrated by a series of scenes involving groups of elderly and children huddling in the hospitals, forced to starve on thin gruel while the leaders in the bunkers feast on champagne, biscuits and eat on the finest crockery. These huddled masses tear on the heart, and the shell-shocked soldiers are driven by equal measures of fear, hate and desparation. They murder any of those civilian men, women and children who do not share their ardor for the Nazi ideal. One of them shockingly and immediately blows his own brains out on the spot, rather than be driven by his commander to go back on the line.

I must make note of the sterling sound design of the film, superbly recorded voicework (Hitler's frequent feral ranting is painful to make out, even when subtitled!), the above-ground whistling and shrieking artillery shells hammer home with constant thick bassy impacts, and even the subtle, quiet and hideous crunch of cyanide on drugged, innocent young tongues is perfectly rendered. This, along with the claustrophobic cinematography and staging deliver a harrowing experience but never resorts to larger than life histrionics. Even when Hitler is cremated, the outlandish saluting from his generals doesn't last long, due to a further Soviet artillery hammering.

Oliver Hirschbiegel creates a film which refuses to play fast and loose with history, and allows it to take as long as it has to, just over two and a half hours. The stories are awful and fascinating, yet it recreates the utter human chaos with character economy, tact and absolute certitude. It's great skill is to depict the deconstruction of the chain of command with absolute integrity.

If I'm going to pick holes, Downfall is a little too literal-minded for my taste, always choosing to err on the side of straight-up caution, preferring to keep its emotional distance and as such, misses out on a truly personal connection. It also presents little that is fresh and new, other than Ganz's magnificent and malevolent performance. And its three main environments and their staging limit the film somewhat, as though it were originally intended to be a television serial, like the great Das Boot.

On the other hand, these are really small blemishes when the film is so well-made, with this level of craftsmanship, complete consideration for its audience, and never relinquishing its tight focus. I do not believe I'm morbid for finding sociological interest in the darker aspects of our history. It makes for terrific drama, and yet we should (but strangely, do not truly) learn from it.

Reviewed on: 04 May 2005
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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 *****
Jennie Kermode ****

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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