Humanizing Horror

This drama about Hitler's last days is an instant classic

When I see a movie about Nazis, I'm always tempted to say something ironic, since "Nazi" pretty much equals "evil," so if you say anything nice about Nazis, it's unlikely you'll be taken seriously. Still, I'm sure there would be someone out there who wouldn't get the joke, so let me begin by saying this: Hitler was a very bad man.

However, he was a man, and among Downfall's many other merits, the film quite successfully shows that. Which is to say that it humanizes Hitler, while nonetheless presenting him as tremendously evil.

Evil, but, as his secretary Traudl Junge notes, he was "a caring person," at least in private and to those he wasn't murdering. Junge's book, Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary, is the basis for Downfall, and it gives insight into both Hitler and the final moments of the Third Reich that are shockingly intimate.

Downfall begins with Hitler calling a young Junge into his office to take a dictation test. When it turns out her typing skills are up to par, she is hired on as one of Hitler's personal secretaries, and thus hired into the Fuhrer's innermost circle. The film then skips ahead to the last days of the war, as the shattered remains of the German Army fall back into the ruins of Berlin.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel cuts back and forth between the decadence and dementia occurring in Hitler's crowded bunker, and the ruin and violence on the streets above. As roving gangs of German military police drag civilians from their homes and hang them from lampposts as "deserters," Hitler orders the movement of troops that no longer exist and attacks by airplanes that have never been manufactured.

Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler, doesn't so much play him as become him. It's as though someone scooped out Ganz's insides and replaced them with pure Hitler essence. Trembling, stooped, alternating between deranged fury and gentle human kindness, Hitler stalks the bunker, stopping to pat a child's head or order the execution of an innocent man.

Meanwhile, on the streets above, the decimated Army is filling its ranks with little boys and girls. These street scenes and battle segments are amazing, among the best war footage ever shot, and Hirschbiegel wisely creates a narrative strain by following a silent young boy who operates anti-tank weaponry while his parents beg him to come home.

As this misdirected heroism occurs on the streets, the soldiers in Hitler's bunker, well aware that all is lost, engage in drunken orgies with half-naked women. A few meters away, perfectly dressed little children stand in one of the bunker's tiny rooms and sing patriotic songs or beg to see "Uncle Hitler."

The children in the bunker are a revelation, as they give the opportunity to show both Hitler's strangely kind side, and the depths of derangement that afflicted his inner circle. There's a horrifying moment when Frau Goebbels poisons her children, because she "won't let them grow up in a world without National Socialism." Meanwhile, a smiling little boy, listening to the mortar bombardment, tells Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), "I really like those loud booms!"

The dialogue is all that good. There's Eva Braun laughing, smoking and drinking as the bombs fall, complaining that Hitler "only talks about dogs and vegetarian meals." Or Braun begging Hitler not to execute her brother-in law, saying "what good is that now?" and hearing him reply, "It is my will."

That kind of dialogue is amazing, not only on its obvious artistic merits, but also because so much of it is real. When Downfall ends, it does the American Graffiti trick of presenting text epilogues for all the characters. It's rather odd to learn that Hitler's most loyal soldier, Otto Günsche (played with heartbreaking dutifulness by

Götz Otto ), died a free man in Berlin in 2003. Or that so many of the high-ranking Nazis were released from jail in 1955.

But it's even stranger to see how they behaved in their final moments in power. Some were trying to take over leadership of the Reich, as though there were something left to lead. Others exhibited insane loyalty to Hitler, as though loyalty made any sense as their evil empire crumbled. And Hitler, of course, blamed the Jews for everything, which at least shows consistency of vision on his part.

Ultimately, there are almost too many good things to say about Downfall. It's nearly flawless. The acting, especially by Bruno Ganz, Christian Berkel, Ulrich Matthes and at least a dozen other actors you've never heard of, is riveting. The script is easily the best naturalistic script I've heard in years. The cinematography is perfectly executed, never succumbing to the modern temptation to be pretty where it should be informative. I could go on and on, but in short, Downfall is not only "the first great film of the year," it's one of those rare films that is guaranteed to become a classic.

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