Spring of 1945 - the Third Reich is on the verge of collapse and the dreams of National Socialism lay in tatters. Blockaded in his bunker, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) lives on, encircled by a small core of friends and supporters. Rejecting the mere concept of peace talks, he continues to order his decimated troops despite the inexorable reality of defeat. Himmler is urging him to leave Berlin to make a final stand in the south but Hitler seems to have a continuing belief that a military victory is still feasible. As the days pass by, he spends his time thinking about his achievements, his few regrets and giving his final orders to his close ones.
Bookending the film, we find the tale of Traudl Junge (played with intelligence by Alexandra Maria Lara) - Hitler's personal secretary who has silently witnessed Hitler's life. The film opens with a young Traudl being ushered into Hitler's office to test for the position of secretary. Hitler gets down to business by dictating a letter to her but Junge's nerves are shot and she fails miserably. Peering over her shoulder, Hitler smiles and generously offers to restart the test from scratch. There is nothing sinister, not sexually predatory in his actions and that's probably what disturbs the most in this film.
Bernd Eichinger's script fails to live up to the typical portrayal of Hitler that has been rehashed for our benefit over the years. Hitler here is a man who enjoys listening to children sing, appreciates vegetarian cuisine, dislikes tobacco smoke and loves his dog. This is not Schindler's List - in fact, the Holocaust is only fleetingly mentioned in the script and just before the final credits. Should this really be an issue? After all, what sense is there in believing that a man like Hitler, despicable though he was, had not a single human quality? Does the belief that he was evil personified, make his actions easier for us to live with? An elderly Traudl Junge reminds us at the end of the film of the horrifying ease with which she was swept away into the midst of madness, only realising decades after the war her own guilt. Her testimony largely vindicates the film's stance, asking us whether we would have been fooled by these displays of humanity.
Bruno Ganz will be familiar to most as one of the angels floating over the skies of Berlin in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. Fallen from the heavens, we discover him buried underground, paranoid and delusional, an ageing but terrifying figure riddled with tremors but with a relentless belief in his own rectitude. It is a staggering performance from the Swiss actor - he draws us into Hitler's world with his humour and humanity, but doesn't fail to display his anger and irrational side. The weaving cast surrounding him are also played with tremendous depth even when they only make fleeting appearances. The Goebells family feature quite prominently in the background, unfailing in their dreams of grandeur and their complete inability to accept a world without National-Socialism. This is another aspect that is difficult to digest for the modern viewer although recent history has taught us that we are hardly immune from swallowing "beautiful" lies.
To claim Downfall to be an enjoyable piece of cinema would be disingenuous. Despite some moments of black humour, it is a harrowing and inexorable journey into the mind of one of the men that sadly shaped a large part of our recent history. It is a vivid, intelligent film that should be commended for its stark realism rather than criticised for not falling into Spielberg-like Manicheism. It is equally fitting that for once, the nation that saw Hitler rise to power, gives us this recounting of his downfall.