Germany is a country still scarred by World War Two, and more sorely by the sins its countrymen and bureaucrats committed in what is considered modern history’s most despicable war. Just as almost every last Nazi emblem has been wiped from the earth – and those remaining regarded as the adornments of Satan himself – German cinema has swept fascism under a carpet for fear of being forever implicated in its horrors.
2004’s Downfall, the first German film to directly tackle the spectre of Hitler (and one that inspired a confounding raft of parodies and internet memes), does so with insight, bravery and automatic controversy. Based on the recollections of Hitler’s real life secretary Traudl Junge and a text by German historian Joachim Fest, the film chronicles the last ten days before Hitler’s suicide in April 1945, capturing a destitute empire crumbling in a war executed by a madman holed up in a bunker.
Any film painting a portrait of Hitler takes on the perilous task of capturing the soul of a man universally believed to be a monster. But director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experimente) doesn’t tidy Hitler up; if anything, he downgrades the enraged, engorged tyrant to a bumbling, demanding nihilist, utterly out of touch with reality and often incongruous with humanity.
The opening scenes of the film – also its mildest – garnered the most criticism. We meet an awkward, gentle Adolf Hitler choosing a secretary from a line-up of anxious young women in what has been denounced as a “grandfatherly” manner. But although Hitler is soft with the girls – he touches them and reassures them – he gives them no more warmth than he later does his dog, inspecting each with a doctor-like kindness. What is more compelling than Hitler’s humanity is the lure of Nazism and its mythic leader – so seductive that the girls quiver in Hitler’s presence, both in fear and innocent excitement. Like Dorothy meeting the Wizard of Oz, they’re simultaneously terrified and honoured to be included in his macabre circus of ultimate power.
It would have been understandable if Hirschbiegel had wanted to tread carefully when faced with the sheer hatred that Nazism incites in opponents and believers alike, but to conceive of Hitler as entirely inhuman is untruthful and unlikely. The late Bruno Ganz’s turn as Adolf is dark and engaging, and so unlike the roaring, spitting Hitler of archival footage. To become a myth, Ganz studied extensively what little material exists on Hitler’s private life; most importantly a short tape of Hitler speaking to friends in his “ordinary” voice, a working-class dialect full of relaxed uncertainty and in sharp contrast to his acerbic public addresses.
Ganz’s Hitler is a broken man; he’s overcome by Parkinson’s disease, fondles his models of a utopian Germany with defeated idealism and when he’s disobeyed, he flies into howling tantrums that make him seem like a pathetic child. Ganz is powerful, but there’s a studied measure and self-consciousness to his performance that distracts from its energy. In truth, no one can nail Hitler – there’s simply too powerful a legend surrounding his furious, icy charisma. But Hitler feels like just one of the many players in this ghoulish drama of relentless, nightmarish chaos.
Historically, war films focus on heroism, on brotherhood, on a myopic nationalism hinged on the same sort of blind-faith propaganda that convinces healthy young men to give up their lives for a mendacious ideal. Steven Spielberg tried to nail the guts of war by depicting explicit violence, but there is even darker terrain to capture. The sheer, sick lunacy of officials coordinating death squads, of individuals lost in a chaotic hell, the murderous danger of extremism, the wastage where dignity plays no role – these are issues bigger than gore and violence. How can the enormous horror of war, with all its pockets of misery and madness, be reconstructed?
Downfall manages it. It is simply the most visceral, abject and painfully authentic film ever made about World War Two, not least because of the fact that it’s not just about Hitler, but the dangerous machine of bureaucracy and blind faith around him. A myriad of faceless officials come and go, in and out of the bunker, executing orders they openly admit are insane and impossible, trying in vain to approximate Hitler’s wishes as soldiers go AWOL, the fighting becomes random and the enemy moves in unabated.
When Germany is fallen, Hitler’s faithful desert him and he matter-of-factly plans his suicide while his few true believers wail in terror, the crushing weight of their idealism violently giving way to the reality of what ruin lies just metres outside the safety of Hitler’s bunker.
There are so many horrors to suffer through in this near three-hour epic of mania. There is the agonisingly slow, quiet scene in which Magda Goebbels murders her six sleeping children, one by one, crushing cyanide pills between their teeth with cold poise, rather than let them live in a world without fascism. The perverse sequence in which a half-mad Eva Braun giddily dances on a table, insisting her party guests drink up as bombs plummet through the roof. There’s the army officer who turns up on time to his appointed execution, begs to be shot but ends up being promoted by Hitler. Or the soldier who randomly puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger when he’s requested to go back on duty – his captain simply walks by the corpse to the next man. This awful chaos is relentless.
Hirschbiegel’s film is fearless. The sheer wastage and lunacy of war has never felt more accurate or more devastating than it does in Downfall. Its unshakable, unspeakable horrors will pull you right into hell.