There have been many screen Hitlers before now, amongst them – rather improbably – Anthony Hopkins and Alec Guinness. In Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and produced by Bernd Eichinger (Das Boot), the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, probably best known to English-speaking audiences as an angel in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, is entrusted with the central role.
Ganz’s Hitler is given an incredible attention to detail, down to the uncontrollable tremor in his left hand, brought on by Parkinson’s disease. His performance, full of unpredictable mood swings, is chilling throughout.
Downfall has been the subject of much media attention – notably a German production, it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, while being criticised in some quarters for humanising Adolf Hitler As the filmmakers pointed out, Hitler wasn’t beamed down from another planet, and it’s the depiction of a once all-powerful, but now frail, ageing man, being incredibly gracious to women, but unleashing terrible fits of fury on his demoralised officers, that somehow makes the horror of the subject matter even more appalling.
Based largely on Joachim Fest’s book Inside Hitler’s Bunker, and more pointedly on the memoir of Hitler’s last secretary, Traudl Junge, Downfall traces the final few days of the Third Reich, as Russian tanks roll ever closer to the ravaged streets of Berlin. Most of the scenes in Downfall take place in the claustrophobic confines of the Fuhrer’s bunker. Traudl (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) claims remorsefully in her own words at either end of the film, that she was nave and didn’t comprehend the extent of Hitler’s actions during his reign.
If such a suggestion is hard to swallow, then they are reinforced in the movie at least, when we see her visibly reeling at the content of letters he asks her to type. Traudl confides to Hitler’s lover Eva Braun, as the pair take a cigarette break (he hated smoking), that whilst he can be so charming sometimes, at other times he says such brutal things. Eva, depicted with almost light-hearted abandon by Juliane Khler, explains matter-of-factly “that is because he is the Fuhrer”.
Cameras pan around the cramped bunker corridors, peopled by officers and dogsbodies, offering glimpses of a rancid, decaying atmosphere. In one scene, we can just see Hitler through a doorway, discussing with meticulous detail his and Eva’s planned suicide. As the end draws inevitably closer, some stick blindly with their leader as his rantings become ever-more incomprehensible, while others just go on a bender.
Moments before Hitler’s death, the fanatical Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), breaks down at his feet. Shortly after, seemingly having recovered some composure, she goes into the quarters of her six sleeping children, and one by one, coolly administers cyanide to each of them, unable to conceive of a world without National Socialism.
Should anyone approach Downfall for reassurance – the end of Nazism, the final destruction of a reign of terror unimagined – they can still only find horror in what they see. It’s a work of quite fearsome power.