“Downfall” (Constantin Film Produktion) is a great film from beginning to end. There is one scene from the film’s beginning, however, that I think will live in my memory for a very long time; in 1942, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) is looking for a new secretary. Five young women have been granted personal interviews with him and have arrived filled with angst; the audience feels the same way, anticipating the first on-screen glimpse of the Fuhrer. He arrives looking old and addresses the ladies in a subdued demeanor. Applicant Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is invited to Hitler’s office, he introduces her to his dog, and when she screws up her first dictation, Hitler is sympathetic, even grandfatherly. Junge charms him and gets the job. Then the unthinkable happens. Not on-screen, but in the minds of the audience: an inner monologue asking the question, “Has Adolf Hitler just charmed me?” Don’t worry if he did, because that was just the effect of a brilliant, of Ganz’s nuanced performance.
This isn’t to say that the Hitler we all know and hate doesn’t make an appearance. The “Downfall” in question is, of course, his, and he is not happy about it. The majority of the film takes place in his fabled Berlin bunker during the last 10 days of his life in April 1945. The narrative, although very focused on Hitler, closely follows his secretary Traudl, whose post-war book provides the source material for “Downfall.” This is welcomed; in a gritty war film that is covered in blood and shrouded by darkness, Alexandra Maria Lara’s beauty and talent are rays of light.
Joining Hitler and Trudl are a rogue’s gallery of Nazis, including Eva Braun (Juliane K?hler), Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Frau Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) and Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen). Each of these characters, not to mention the ones who are less historically infamous, have the most bizarre relationships with their F?hrer, which are wonderful to watch as they incur his love, hate, respect, and wrath, and “blow their brains out” for Hitler. The development of these relationships throughout the movie is gripping.
The portrayal of madness and chaos that have seized the bunker at the end of the Third Reich seems stranger than fiction. Perpetual drunkenness, debauchery, uncontrolled outrage and extensive discussion of suicide techniques seem very appropriate for a regime that had long since lost touch with reality, humanity, and compassion. And on one final note: “Downfall” premiered in Germany last year, making it part of a year with several high profile biopics. That this film, the most important from a historical standpoint and remarkable for its intimate portrayal of a man who is rarely seen as human, was the German nominee for the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film may just be a glimmer of hope for the otherwise over-politicized Oscars.
“Downfall” opens Friday in Washington, D.C.