#96: Downfall [2004]

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.

Comments

  1. So an unremarkable man is one that nearly conquers europe? I think this is a great film. Rarely do we see a film from the germans point of view. I do find myself sympathising with Hitler. Here is a man that so wanted to change Germany and the world but has failed. The scene where Goebbles poisons there children is one of the most unnerving scenes I have ever seen in a film. I love the fact that they included interviews with Junge as a primary source and its of great use as not many people really close to Hitler in his last days are alive now. This isn't my favourite world war 2 film but I still find it great as its from the enemies point of view.
    chris

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    1. Chris: My point was that he had no special military etc skills, but he could manipulate a turbulent situation for his gain. He was just another person, who committed such heinous crimes - that's scary, no? I wouldnt say we should sympathise with Hitler, just that seeing his human side emphasises his evil.

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  2. Really good analysis. I've been meaning to see this film for ages, now I'll have to go and watch it! It's important to see that the Nazis were, despite everything, in many ways ordinary human beings. It was convenient at the end of the war to simplistically say that the Nazi's were just inherently evil, it absolved the populations of the defeated powers of guilt and helped justify allied atrocities. Painting the Nazis as two-dimensional monsters, like most films do, stops us learning the lesson that apparently ordinary people were capable of terrible things. We aren't just born good or evil, we make choices, and the most interesting (and scary) thing about the Nazis is the way that they reached such a warped moral code.

    On a lighter note, you might appreciate the edited scenes from Downfall if you haven't seen them yet! In this one Hitler discovers that he hasn't got into Hogwarts... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qM5f_gZT06c&feature=related

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    1. I agree - the film argues that there are lessons which have been overlooked as they're too worrying to consider.
      And I love all the parodies. See the link on the wiki page to the director talking about how they reclaim the story.

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    2. Brilliant, I'm liking this director more and more!

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  3. Great review Cam. This film left me feeling very troubled, pretty much for the reasons you state. How could civilised people behave in this way? The Germans did not do it all on their own you know. There were noble resistence efforts in some conquered territories, but on a relatively small scale (probable exception of Yugoslavia, which sabotaged ferociously). The USSR fought heroically once attacked & of course the British Empire was the only entity to fight WWII from beginning to end. Most of the rest of Europe was able to do little or nothing, or, to their eternal shame, collaborated with the monster.

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