Downfall is bookended by excerpts from Blind Spot, André Heller’s 2002 documentary on Traudl Junge, the woman who served as Hitler’s secretary from 1942 until his death. A critically acclaimed piece, it was able to secure widespread international distribution (unheard of for an Austrian documentary; it was released by Columbia in the UK), a situation that perhaps aided Downfall’s existence. For whilst representations of Hitler on stage and screen have never been particularly rare – recent years having seen Max, the TV miniseries Hitler: The Rise of Evil, and Mel Brooks’ The Producers being revived on Broadway – fictional portrayals from Germany certainly are. (There have, of course, been a handful of titles, as well as Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s epic documentaries.) As such Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, hitherto best known for Das Experiment, arrives not only as an unavoidably major work, but also one which shoulders a huge weight of expectation.
As the title suggests, this is a work which follows Hitler towards the end of his life, specifically from his 56th birthday until his eventual suicide. It’s an interesting approach as, much like those pieces which follow his early years, it allows for an influx of some humanity. By this point in his life he is weak, vulnerable, clearly ill and planning his own death, as opposed to the figure familiar from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries. Indeed, it’s a mark of Bruno Ganz’s talent (at last given a weighty role following the cameo limbo of Luther and The Manchurian Candidate which he’s recently been stuck in) in bringing him to the screen that he is able to capture a multitude of paradoxes. He remains an egotistical and undoubtedly cold blooded figure, yet we are also able to see – and importantly believe – a truly heartfelt kiss to Eva Braun, a clear love for his dog Blondi (though this is given less screen time than in Alexander Sokurov’s Moloch) and a man reduced to getting married in a cramped, monochrome locker room. Perhaps the key moments come when we see his Parkinson’s disease affected left hand twitch uncontrollably behind his back – in other words Hirschbiegel is showing us those elements not registered in the public façade or popular perception.
More importantly, however, Hirschbiegel doesn’t dwell on Hitler too much; indeed, he isn’t even the sole focus. Perhaps owing to its status as the first major German work to portray him from a dramatic standpoint, Downfall is as much a film about Germany, or rather wartime Germany itself. Certainly, our way into the narrative isn’t through Hitler himself, but the youthful figure of Junge. As well as the Blind Spot excerpt we also open with an earlier scene, from 1942, in which she is first given the job for which she will always be remembered. It’s as though Hirschbiegel needed a genuine, truly believable character with which to gain our acceptance – and Blind Spot has allowed for this. And yet, much like Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, Heller’s documentary was an ambiguous piece and certainly didn’t offer Junge in a completely favourable light (though it must be noted that the film contained no other presence but Junge’s and no other voice but her own, though of course Heller’s editorial control cannot be underestimated or ignored).
Likewise Hirschbiegel doesn’t scrimp or spare us from the harsher details or present clean-cut portrayals of his various historical figures. Indeed, in this respect Downfall can be a difficult piece to watch; the horror of war is abundantly clear as its bleakness. Futility infuses the entire picture – this is not a place where any of the smiles are real – especially as it cross-cuts between the scenes in the bunker and above ground as the Russians draw ever nearer and the war effort is seemingly made up primarily of children as young as 12 and old men who no longer wish to fight. Importantly, however, it is this range which allows Downfall a dynamism which its subject matter perhaps wouldn’t suggest. Indeed, it is after all not a film all that removed from Hirschbiegel’s previous feature, the flashy Das Experiment.
Yet for this breadth, it is also important that Downfall shouldn’t be considered an epic. It doesn’t recall the war movie of popular imagination nor does it share its ‘scope photography (the small-scale dramas would no doubt appear swamped in the wider frame). Of course, certain cinematic recollections are produced (personally I find that any recreation of Nazi Germany immediately sparks memories of the decadence of The Night Porter or Visconti’s The Damned) and the film does have the budget to have produced such a film if it so wished – the period detail is unsurprisingly wonderful – but it’s far more remote than that. Certainly, Downfall is an incredibly rich piece of filmmaking and, as said, an undoubtedly major work, but it’s the details which linger and make it so astonishing.
Downfall’s first disc is devoted entirely to the film itself and houses two soundtrack options, a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix or the choice of DTS. Whilst the film makes full use of the various channels (constant artillery rumbles, explosions and the like), there is in fact little to separate the two. Certainly, when it comes down to the dialogue scenes, any differences between the two become barely discernible. As such, those without DTS capability have nothing to worry about, and it is likely that the soundtrack option you go for will be down to personal predilection than any kind of technical one-upmanship.
In terms of its visual presentation, Downfall is equally impressive if not quite perfect. The image throughout is often extremely dark given the grey/black colour schemes, yet the disc handles this extremely well and without any overt difficulties. Artefacting is present on occasion, but never at a level which could be considered too distracting. Moreover, we also get the film presented anamorphically and with optional English subtitles, though it should be noted that these are of the hard of hearing variety and thus the screen is plagued by phrases such as “[Screams of pain]” and like throughout.
The second disc houses all of the special features, a fine collection which amount to the following:
The Making of Downfall
At 56 minutes, this piece is weightier than your standard ‘making of’, but doesn’t in fact stray too far from the norm. Indeed, its execution is decidedly simply as it combines B-roll footage with interviews from the cast and crew. Understandably, the emphasis is on the potential controversy of such a subject and the film’s authenticity, and as such has no problems in maintaining our interest over the duration.
Interview with Melissa Müller
Müller was the editor Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Secretary, Traudl Junge’s memoir. As such this eight-minute interview spends much of its time discussing the events which led to her meetings with Junge and how this lead not only to the book, but also the film. [Please note that unlike on the other special features, the English subtitles here are non-optional.]
This piece takes us inside the bunker and allows us peruse various set photographs and jump to excerpts from relevant scenes.
Though of varying lengths, the average duration for each individual interview is roughly two minutes. In this respect they never truly progress from offering soundbites (plus there’s some crossover with the interviews contained in the main documentary), though the sheer number of those spoken to does allow for a certain depth.
Historical Characters and their Actors
This piece offers two to three pages worth of biographies for the former and select filmographies for the latter.
As with the previous piece, here we get brief bios for Hirschbiegel, writer/producer Bernd Eichinger and author Joachim Hest.
Two pieces in fact, the first being ‘Shooting in Russia’ in which executive producer Christine Rothe and production designer Bernd Lapel spend 18 minutes discussing the filming of Downfall, and the second a 13 minute piece in which Hirschbiegel commentates over B-roll footage. The latter is particularly nice as it's one of those rare occasions where we get to see the B-roll material given some kind of context, but as with a number of these pieces, it does cover some similar ground to that featured in the main documentary. Indeed, those picking up this disc are advised to go for the documentary first and then decide upon the further material.