Downfall depicts the dramatic last days of Nazi Germany from within Hitler’s Führerbunker in Berlin. The Red Army nears with every passing moment and the fall of the Third Reich is imminent. Civilians die in their thousands as the nation’s infrastructure disintegrates and the enemies’ invasion of the capital accelerates. In many ways, this is a brutal film. In many ways, it is also a nuanced narration of a story often considered too taboo to tell. It is with much consideration of the need for sensitivity, therefore, that I relate my observations.
There is much too much to say about this incredibly intelligent film in one short blog post, so I recommend you visit the Wikipedia page and investigate the sources at the bottom. Suffice it to say that director Hirschbiegel had a monumental task on his hands. The difficulty of the subject matter is a given, but what of the portrayal of that man? How could it be done tastefully, truthfully? This was always going to be a provoking work of cinema.
Downfall shows Nazism for what it was: cruel and uncompassionate. This is a vital point which stabilises the film’s exploration of deeper issues, namely, the humanity of the Nazi leadership. As we see positive portrayals of figures such as Mohnke and Schenck, we find ourselves unable to marry their sympathetic depiction with their Nazi identity. As an English viewer, I found myself overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. In G.C.S.E. history lessons the Axis forces are the bad guys. No questions asked. In Downfall, their suffering is pushed into the foreground and the acceptable view becomes worryingly simplistic.
Still, while the film explores the complexity of the Nazi identity, there is no equivocation over the evil of the regime. Rather, the humanity in the physical portrayal of prominent Nazi figures makes the atrocities of the Second World War seem worse. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the person of Adolf Hitler. Bruno Ganz’ talented representation of the dictator won the critics’ favour in what was a daring decision to interpret this iconic figure, rather than to rely on archive footage. In modern culture, Hitler has become a figurative archetype of monstrous evil; Downfall returns to the fact that this was an essentially unremarkable man who lived, breathed, made useful friends and nearly conquered Europe in its entirety, while charmingly complimenting his chef. It’s simply terrifying.
Many critics have seen this film as glamorising Nazism, and even sympathising with the Nazi leadership in its twilight hours. Hitler’s furious outbursts, his wilful ignorance in the face of defeat, and his sickening pride in his battle against ‘International Jewry’ save Downfall from such censure. True, Hirschbiegel has taken a deeply difficult subject matter and made it more problematical. Yet for this we can praise him, for he has reclaimed an era of history previously considered beyond artistic interpretation and offered it up to the world’s stage.