Monday, April 2, 2012

Movie – Downfall (2004)

Downfall is a German film based on two books that recounted the last days of Adolph Hitler – Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary by Traudl Junge.  It is the latter that gives us the best look because it is the personal account of a woman who was actually there.  There is a level of personal connection we make with the character of Traudl in the film since we know that in some ways this is her story, too.  The result is a strongly dramatic, sometimes riveting look at the downfall of Hitler and the Nazis.

Most of the people portrayed in the film were real.  I knew many of the names (i.e. Goebbels, Himmler, Speer), of course, but some were new to me.  There are many generals, most of whom I could not keep straight.  I’m sure someone who has a better knowledge of the German military during World War II will be able to appreciate them more.

For me the film was all about two people: Hitler and Traudl Junge.  Traudl was Hitler’s personal secretary for the last three years of his life.  As such she was there in the bunker with him at the end.  She also saw the man, not just the monster.  Traudl is played by Alexandra Maria Lara, who also had a small, but key role in The Reader (2008), which was also about the Nazis.

The movie opens with footage of the real Traudl.  It then goes into the movie in 1942 where we meet the young Traudl as a nervous applicant to be Hitler’s next secretary.  There are several women there.  Hitler (Bruno Ganz) comes out and is cordial to them, asking each their name and where they are from.  He chooses Traudl.  The film then moves forward to April 20th, 1945, which is Hitler’s 56th birthday.  In 10 days he will be dead.

The entire ranking government and military have come to Hitler’s bunker to celebrate his birthday with him.  We now see a different Hitler.  He is unwell both physically and mentally.  Some of them urge him to leave Berlin while he still can.  He declines.  He gathers his military officers and plots strategy with them.  Over the next few days we find that Hitler’s officers have been lying to him, telling him his forces are stronger than they really are.  Hitler is moving imaginary armies around to try to stop the Soviets from taking Berlin.

As the film goes on, more and more scenes are shown where Hitler orders his military to do something that it can’t do, and him getting madder and madder as his forces fail him.  Several more times different people try to convince him to abandon Berlin.  Instead he starts plotting a scorched earth plan.  He will have his own military destroy the infrastructure in Berlin so the Soviets cannot have it.  His people beg him to reconsider because he will be hurting Germans, not the enemy.  He says that the only Germans that will be left will be cowards and they do not deserve to live.

At one point he orders a General to come back to be shot.  The man does come, but demands to know why this is to happen.  Hitler tells him that he had a report that the General had abandoned his post.  This is not the case.  Hitler not only rescinds the order, he promotes the General to command all defenses of the city.  As he is leaving, the General notes that he would have preferred to have been shot.

While all of this has been going on Traudl and a few other women (Eva Braun being one) have been watching.  Traudl has stayed out of loyalty to her Fuhrer.  At a few points she is also encouraged to leave, but it is not until Hitler is dead that she does so.  Eva Braun had been one of the people to encourage her to try to live and get away.

Eventually, even Hitler realizes that all is lost for him.  He dictates his will to Traudl, marries his long time girlfriend Eva Braun, then goes back to his room with her to commit suicide.  He leaves orders for his body to be destroyed so that the Soviets will not get a hold of it.

In probably the most powerful scene in the film, Joseph Goebbels’ wife Magda determines that she and her family should also not live to see a day where their Fuhrer and their Reich no longer exist.  A number of high ranking officials do the same.

The morning after Hitler’s death Traudl and others try to make their way out of the bunker.  It is extremely dangerous, not just from all the artillery that is falling, but from all the Soviet soldiers they will need to avoid or get by to get out of the city.  Since Traudl wrote one of the books that this film is based on you know she survives, but I will not spoil how, nor whether the Soviets captured her or not.  The film ends with another clip of the real Traudl talking about how she was not aware of the extent of the concentration camps, but that she still feels guilty because her youth should not have kept her from being aware of the truth.  In real life Traudl Junge died just hours after the premiere of this film.

Bruno Ganz gives a riveting performance as Adolph Hitler.  Seeing him on screen as Hitler played with my head for a couple of reasons.  The first is that he starred in the 1987 film Wings of Desire as an angel who comforts people and who becomes human because of his love for a human woman.  (You can read my review of that film here.)  I could not imagine a more different role from that than Adolph Hitler.  The second is that he looked startlingly like Hitler once they put on the moustache and uniform.  Ganz himself has said he was disconcerted by how much he looked like the man.

Once the film had been running for a while, all thoughts of his other role faded away for me and he was Hitler.  Yes, we get scenes of insanity and yelling, but we also get quieter scenes, such as the one at the opening.  I was surprised that a German film would have a portrayal of Hitler as anything other than a hideous monster.  While the film is definitely not sympathetic to Hitler, it does show that he was not always like the man the world saw in news reels.  We get to see him through the eyes of the people who knew him.

Obviously a film about Hitler is not for everyone.  If you are interested in history, especially the events that went on as Nazi Germany was falling, then you should definitely see this film.  Also, if your only knowledge of Hitler’s death comes from the 2009 film Inglorious Basterds, then you must see Downfall.  The film probably shows the biggest effects on those people immediately around Hitler and that is where the emotional impact of the film comes in.  I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. I watched this movie on a whim one day and absolutely love it. Like you said, its a movie that humanizes Hitler so its definitely not for everyone, but its one of my favorite movies. Good review

  2. Wow... Following your Up review with this one is like shifting to opposite ends of the spectrum! What a double feature that would make!

    Seriously, though... What a punch in the gut this film was. I felt the scene at the end with the kids especially hard to take. Well done film about a difficult topic. One viewing in a lifetime is enough for me.

  3. @Gregory Roy - Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    @Barry P. - Thanks for picking up on that. Showing the dichotomy between the two films was intentional on my part. I had thought about possibly doing Falling Down as my "down" film, but I decided to do Downfall precisely because it was so opposite the movie Up. As up is to down, so too is Up to Downfall.

  4. Chip, I think this is a really good film. And, you're right about Ganz doing a nice job here. He does look a lot like Hitler. I have no problem seeing Hitler as a human being--he was. No one can be truly evil all the time. He was surely mentally unbalanced, but he had times where he was somewhat cognizant that what he was doing was ruinous for Germany.

  5. @KimWilson - I agree. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Great performance by Bruno Ganz, I agree. I saw Anthony Hopkins play Hitler in the bunker, and Ganz was better, though Hopkins was very believable when he got angry. The Bunker (1981) just wasn't as powerful and a bit slow, as it was made-for-TV, they were saving on budget by letting the gunfire be noise rather than battles. In German Downfall was so much more authentic, version from 1981 didn't feel right spoken in English.

    Yes that juxtaposition of UP and Downfall was like seeing a pampers commercial on tv, followed by a war story on the news! ( :

  7. I've been meaning to see Downfall for a long time- first, because of Alexandra Maria Lara (supporting national talent- I'm talking about her country of birth, not her current residency), and second, because I am interested in history! It is on my list and I will see it...I'm just not sure when! Great review!

  8. @Chris - I haven't seen The Bunker. Thanks for the information on it.

    @Diana - Thanks. It definitely is a movie that should be seen at some point.