Retrospective: Downfall (2004)

Downfall is a movie I’m slightly torn over. On the one hand  it’s a very well made film with plausibility you can only get by using a German actor to play Hitler but it’s fundamentally built on a lie and a pernicious lie at that. It’s based on the final days of Hitler’s rule from the confined area of his bunker in Berlin primarily from the perspective of his secretary, Traudl Junge. The real Junge is interviewed in the movie and her personal testimony is used in the film to compound the like. What is this great lie that I am so upset over? Well, it’s about this pretty protagonist not realizing Hitler’s anti-semitism. This is a great historical lie as to quote Clive James ‘the one thing everyone knew about Hitler was that he was a vicious Anti-Semite’.

Being a historian by degree and having an interest in the period, this movie really gets the feel of Antony Bevour’s book Berlin in terms of the claustrophobia and the manic nature of Hitler and the huge casualties of the common people as the war ended, with the casual brutality and the increasing sense of abandon. It is visceral in its portrayal of huge causalities, clearing stations underground with no resources and all the overworked doctors and nurses. It also has the occasional light moment in the bunker and how divorced they all seem from reality that even when the Russians are shelling the bunker they still believe that the cavalry is around the corner in an imaginary army or anyone will save them anything as they struggle to accept the reality of what’s happening. The claustrophobia is reminiscent of another German movie Das Boot (set on a German U-Boot on an increasing difficult trip) with the narrow wall and the poor lighting focusing on faces with various expressions of doom and dread and people with too many responsibilities slowly cracking.

Throughout the movie we are introduced to many of the best known figures from the perspective of the secretary. It’s a movie built around Hitler and as such has to be held by acto Bruno Ganz who is remarkable in the role, managing to show almost all the facets of his character, but unfortunately this good work is still somewhat let down by the movie’s great lie which is built in order to try to engage the audience. Although this is not the only movie to lie like this, Schindler’s List is another excellent example (ie it’s about the Jews saved not about those killed and the usage of the girl in the red dress is emotional manipulation of the highest order).

Downfall lacks the greater historical context of the period and only really gives a veneer of characterization of some of the great figures. There is no understanding of their views or motivation behind their despising of particular minorities. Considering events such as Hitler’s final days, his decent into madness and the mass suicide in the bunker, the movie has to have a larger historical sense and the innocent figure of his secretary feels very forced. You cannot be in such a privileged position and not know what he is thinking and the basic ideas behind national socialism. Perhaps it would have been better to see her become more subversive as the war goes on because of the magnetism of his leadership and belief in her safety.

The way the movie creates the feel of people being at the mercy of random actions is very effective and showing how the divisions between people break into suicides and sex at the end of the world means it creates an apocalyptic atmosphere that really bring a thrill to the viewer of good film making. It’s amazing how few ‘end of the world’ fictions use reality as a model for their apocalypse, but Downfall certainly gets that feel correct. Unfortunately, considering the enormity of the event it’s shame it abandons the historical context as it does.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl


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