Once the tyrannical Nazi rule over Germany crumbled, those who were once seen as the heroes of this new regime and war effort found themselves in their final days, hunkered underground, waiting for the inevitable Russian forces. Their perplexing inability to accept their losses, and their undignified approach to sacrificing as many as they could for the sake of a dying message is one of the most violently disturbing acts humanity may ever see. Downfall, from director Oliver Hirschbiegel, captures these final moments of life during wartime for Nazi Germany, as Adolf Hitler and his cronies huddle together for their final days as they career, bull-headed, into inevitable defeat.
Sure to be remembered for his brilliant performance as a cold, disgruntled idiot, Bruno Ganz commands the screen with certainty. As much a film about Hitler’s mental state and inability to accept defeat in the final moments of his reign as it is a compelling war drama that brings life to the ruined streets of Berlin, Downfall articulates its history well and with confidence. There is, however, an understanding that, while Hitler was a monster and an unsalvageable husk of a human, he still had emotions. He had fear for his life and his vision, and he was aggravated by even the slightest indiscretion. Ganz captures that well, depicting a short-fused leader who grasps at the crumbling empire. It does not humanise him, that would be an unforgivably poor idea, but Downfall does well to remind audiences that even the worst of us are still mortal.
Hirschbiegel explores this from time to time, not as often as he should, but it is present. Much of the story relies on looking through the eyes of an observer, rather than that of a person fully involved in the Nazi regiment. Adapting the life of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s private secretary, gives Downfall an exceptionally unique scope. Alexandra Maria Lara’s performance is a strong one, overshadowed by Ganz, but her impact on the film is felt. She makes up the downtime in between the violence and the in-fighting, she is the closest the film can get to innocence inside of that hideaway bunker, but even then, she is not without fault. Brainwashed by the message so many fell for, Downfall has harsh and brutal moments that show the full extent abuse of power brings.
Essential viewing for those with even an inkling of interest in this period of history, Downfall provides exceptional performances and a keen experiment in blending cinematic values with the disgusting crimes of a monstrous coward. Hirschbiegel doesn’t need to show the personal actions and horrors that Hitler possessed, his incompetency as a wartime leader shines through thanks to strong filmmaking and a masterful, memorable performance from Ganz. Downfall is the standard for modern war biopics, and if this is the bar to vault, then filmmakers years down the line will struggle to top the brutality and pain the people of Germany were pushed through found here.