By the beginning of 1945 it was apparent
that Germany’s defeat in World War II was assured. Assailed by Stalin’s
monumental Russian forces to the East and with the Allies steadily
encroaching from the West, the only questions remaining were when the
German high command would capitulate, and whether Berlin would fall to
the Reds or the Allies.
Hitler, in keeping with the ‘all or
nothing’ ethos which had proven the decisive factor of his life, had no
intentions of surrendering to either side. Instead he ordered the
‘Volksturm’ – a pitiful force consisting of poorly-armed old men and
cherry-cheeked adolescents –to join the remnants of his tattered armies
in defending the Fatherland at all costs.
In a war which had already cost tens of
millions of lives, Hitler’s decision to send Germany’s remaining menfolk
to their slaughter resulted in hundreds of thousands more needless
deaths, and bought his ‘Thousand Year Reich’ a few more days at best.
By late April 1945, with Russian forces just minutes away from his
concrete bunker underneath the Reich Chancellery, Hitler wed his long
time mistress Eva Braun, dictated his vitriol-filled political
testament, then ended his own life with a cyanide capsule and a bullet
to the head.
The highly-acclaimed German production
Downfall, which several critics touted as one of the best war movies
ever made, details the final desperate fortnight of Hitler’s life.
Eking out a mole-like existence in the Führerbunker, under constant
bombardment from Russian artillery and betrayed by almost all his
closest associates including SS Chief Heinrich Himmler and his deputy
Hermann Goering, Hitler spent his final days railing at his Generals,
poring over maps, directing the movements of armies that existed only on
paper (or in his own head) and desperately trying to convince himself
that a late victory was, by some miracle, possible.
Bruno Ganz spent several months studying
the speech patterns and mannerisms of Adolf Hitler, and the end result
is one of the most chillingly realistic depictions ever to grace the
screen, if that’s the right word. The likenesses and costumes, for the
record, aren’t a patch on those of, say, Valkyrie – the actor
portraying the diminutive Goebbels is about six feet tall, and Juliane
Köhler bears a closer resemblance to Toni Collette than Eva Braun – but
as an emotional record and historical testament Downfall is near
Ganz is simply mesmerising as the doomed
dictator. His Hitler shakes and tremors, racked by constant spasms
affecting the left side of his body and spewing venom and spittle in
equal quantities whenever he receives unwelcome news, which is often.
He aptly captures the charisma which so ensnared the German mass
consciousness of the day and allowed millions to go willingly to their
deaths, though by April 1945 even the Führer’s unshakeable belief in his
own destiny had crumbled, and he was a thoroughly broken and defeated
Scenes depicting the German defence of
Berlin are heartrending in their poignancy, as when helpless members of
the Hitler Youth don comically oversized helmets and march off bravely
to face tank brigades and a sea of Red army soldiers, though thankfully
we are spared depictions of the worst of the Russian excesses upon
taking the city.
Downfall is a powerful, challenging
and unforgettable film. Far from humanising the Nazi leader it presents
him for what he was; a doomed, self-deluding mass murderer intent on
conquering Europe or destroying it. It’s an intensely visceral viewing
experience, but a necessary one, and a film that represents one of the
great triumphs of 21st century German cinema.
The 16:9 widescreen transfer is defect and
artefact free, and both the 5.1 and 2.0 German audio options are
faultless affairs also, with plenty of directionality on the immersive
There are no special features, and the only
subtitles on offer are English. The film is also bookended,
incidentally, with real-life interview footage from Hitler’s secretary
Trudl Junge. Junge was in her early twenties at the time of World War
II and later in life spoke with increasing frequency about her time
spent in Hitler’s employ. The inclusion of her typically contrite
sentiments here add an extra layer of authenticity and justification for
the project, and it is fascinating to see the way in which she justifies
her wilful ignorance of some of the horrors of the Nazi regime.