“Downfall” (2004) is Disturbingly Good



“Downfall” (2004), which depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler holed up in a bunker in Berlin at the end of the European campaign of World War II, is a frightening film, although I don’t mean frightening in a horror film kind of way.

Most of us take comfort in the belief that we are not like Adolf Hitler, a man who most certainly will go on any sensible person’s list of the ten most evil human being to ever walk this earth.  We watch the documentaries of the Nazi regime, read about the concentration camps and visit the Holocaust memorial with outrage and indignation towards the sheer contempt Hitler and his henchmen showed for fellow mankind.

What makes “Downfall” a remarkable achievement is that it strips away this sense of comfort by depicting Adolf Hitler as no different from each of us, exhibiting physical ailments, with the capacity to think rationally (albeit in a twisted way) and showing bursts of emotions.  Watching this film is at times a disturbing experience because the moral distance that we often place between us and Hitler disappears.

“Downfall” makes possible the obvious yet deeply troubling realization that Hitler was just another human being because it personifies Hitler in ways that has not been achieved in the past. The entire film is filled with scenes in which Hitler comes off not only relatable but, I hate to concede, also sympathetic.

The film opens with Hitler’s seeking to hire a new secretary.  When a candidate is unable to keep up with Hitler’s dictation because of nerves, Hitler shows patience, offers to start again and ends up hiring her.  Throughout the film, Hitler’s Parkinson’s disease visibly grows worse, a reminder that Hitler’s later life operated under serious physical ailment, like many others who live with an incurable disease.  And as his closest allies, starting with Goering, then Speer and finally Himmler, betray him, Hitler responds much in the way an ordinary person would be expected to respond, mostly outwardly indignant but sometimes quietly saddened.

To be clear, “Downfall” is not a film that is attempting to rehabilitate the image of Adolf Hitler.  To the contrary, the film depicts Hitler as a paranoid madman increasingly losing grip on reality, moving around army regiments that do not exist and talking about how the Battle of Berlin is all part of his grand scheme to lull the enemy into a false sense of comfort.  Nor is there any doubt about the moral bankruptcy of the man who shows callous disregard towards the life of other human beings, including civilians of Berlin.

It is precisely because Hitler is shown as a madman, but a man nonetheless, that the film is so powerful.  Bruno Ganz’s depiction of Hitler is perfect, not only because of the uncanny resemblance but because of the subtle balance between crazy and humane that he absolutely nailed.  It’s a travesty that his performance didn’t garner him at least an Academy Award nomination.

Ganz also has extraordinary support around him.  Heino Ferch plays Albert Speer, the architect turned minister of the Third Reich.  Ferch’s Speer is even more complicated than Ganz’ Hitler.  There is a scene in which Speer, who has come to pay his final respects to Hitler before fleeing Berlin, asks Hitler to spare the women and children, then confesses that he had been actively disobeying Hitler’s order to scorch everything that was left in Berlin.  Such glimpse of care is rare from Hitler’s inner circle, yet in the next sentence, Speer says his disobedience never changed the fact that he always felt personal allegiance to the Führer.  This conflicted depiction of Speer, along with the muted indignation Hitler shows in contrast to the outbursts he had upon learning of Goering’s and Himmler’s betrayal, is a particularly notable scene in a film with so many memorable performances.

In a way, an audience can take greater comfort in the propaganda minster Joseph Goebbels as depicted by Ulrich Matthes.   As others flee and betray, Goebbels is unwavering in his loyalty to Hitler and his ideology.  The pure disdain that he and his wife exhibit toward human life–they poison their six young children before killing themselves–is consistent with what we would expect from those at the center of the Nazi regime.

In the end, Goebbels’, and even Speer’s, unyielding personal loyalty to Hitler is something that not even “Downfall” can bring us closer to understanding.  Perhaps that’s the one solace to take from “Downfall”:  knowing that, even if each of us share with Hitler and the men who surrounded him the basic element of personhood, the sympathy to the Nazi ideology and the allegiance to a madman are something that we do not hold in common.


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