Downfall (2004)

“All these horrors I’ve heard of during the Nuremberg process, these six million Jews, other thinking people or people of another race, who perished. That shocked me deeply. But I hadn’t made the connection with my past. I assured myself with the thought of not being personally guilty. And that I didn’t know anything about the enormous scale of it. But one day I walked by a memorial plate of Sophie Scholl in the Franz-Joseph-Strasse. I saw that she was about my age and she was executed in the same year I came to Hitler. And at that moment I actually realised that a young age isn’t an excuse. And that it might have been possible to get to know things2

‘Downfall’, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2004, is a German historical drama following the final days of Adolf Hitler as Berlin is besieged and overrun by the Soviet army. The film begins with modern documentary footage showing an interview with a secretary who was present in the bunker when the German leader killed himself. It then moves to 1942 showing a fictionalised account of how that secretary got the job, with Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz, at the height of his power. The rest of the movie moves between the perspectives of the secretary, an SS doctor and a free-ranging depiction of life on the streets of the city during the battle. It’s a powerful film with a number of notable set-pieces, mostly involving Ganz’s mesmerising performance as Hitler. He plays the leader with a mixture of unpredictable rage and occasional moments of quiet, almost avuncular contemplative compassion. This is a fine line to draw – to make a character of Hitler and to strip back some of the mythology surrounding him without presenting him as inappropriately sympathetic. Hirschbiegel adroitly treads this line by presenting him somewhat ironically: compassionate whilst saying uncompassionate things, in control whilst being insanely blinded by his own ego, at times angry to the point of inhumanity. Famously, one of these moments of rage has become an internet meme, a scene of him rabidly berating his generals has been subtitled to appear as though he’s talking about everything from Brexit to Doctor Who. The danger of this is it distracts from the achievement of the film as a whole, turning Hitler into a one-note joke, when ‘Downfall does so much more.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an epic that tells a massive story on a tight, claustrophobic stage. It’s shocking, ironic, prurient and spectacular. Watch with ‘Au revoir les enfants’ for a rounded picture of the Nazi’s within and without.

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