Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Certificate: Ger 2005, rt 155 mins, cert 15,

Germany’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar has been picking up the plaudits at many of the festivals its been shown at. It appears to have picked up some controversy but mainly I think of the ignorance variety, namely from those thinking they know what the film is. The finished article is somewhat different.

The film concerns the downfall of the Third Reich, the Nazi regime retired to Hitler’s bunker and watching and hearing Berlin fall around them. It begins though in fact in the early part of the war, based as it is on the writings of Traudl Junge, a secretary who worked for Hitler. It soon though moves to the final stages of the war, since the script also takes as its source, an account by Joachim Fest called Inside Hitler’s Bunker.

What the film has been accused of, but definitely is not, is sympathetic to the Nazi Leader. To suggest that the depiction gives genocide murderers humanity is to miss the essential point that is precisely why so many were taken in. The whole regime did have plausibility on their side, a better future for the German Race and they’re preaching to the converted here in the bunker but what is fascinating about this film is to watch how the idyll crumbles around them, and we are not talking Hitler here, because there are chilling portrayals of the Goebbels (Joseph and his wife Magda), right-hand man Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, architect Albert Speer and many of Hitler’s generals.

Personally I found this riveting from the word go. It is like watching history, one hesitates to say that, but it does help greatly to see the idealism, the megalomania, the ruthlessness, the plotting of what essentially is a bunch of gangsters with a great deal of misused power. Goebbel’s children have to be done away with, in a chilling scene – you end up yes, thinking what heartless parents and yet you remember that dying in comfort they got it easy compared to the thousands of children gassed by the regime in camps.

Many good performances, Ganz is simply brilliant as Hitler, complete with mannerisms (the flickering hand), the ability to be a charmer to secretaries one minute and to issue a volley of abuse to his generals the next. Julianne Kohler is excellent as the hostess Eva Braun, blinkered, loyal and totally devoted to Adolf. I also liked Heino Ferch as the level-headed Speer, Ulrich Matthes as chilling obstinate Goebbels and Ulrich Noethen as the thoroughly deviant but highly intelligent Himmler.

The weaknesses in the film are minor. One might have liked to see more from the years when the Final Solution was taking place – beginning at the start of the war and cutting swiftly to the end means we don’t get to hear some of the genocide plotting. Secondly Speer’s character is not quite right according to Speer’s living relatives and dramatic licence has been shown at the end where the outcome of secretary Traudl Junge is different in real life to the impression given in the film. Then there’s the Russian brutality to Nazis once they invaded Berlin. They were particularly brutal following German mistreatment of their own prisoners of war but the impression given in the film is that the Russians were a pleasant bunch, quite different to the unshown but well-documented viciousness they exhibited in real life.

Otherwise however, this is an admirable portrayal of a part of the war not well-documented by previous films. Much of the fascination is to find out what might have been in occupying the minds of these terrible human beings to make them commit the atrocities they did, and Downfall goes some way to explaining that. Ganz’s rounded portrayal of the idealistic dictator sticks in the mind long after you’ve seen it and part of the understanding of the horror is to understand the calculated deviousness of the minds that came up with it.

Matt Arnoldi

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