The context of Downfall is the last ten days in the bunker, based on a compilation of sources – one being the young secretary who comes to Berlin to work for Hitler. She is shown later in life at the beginning and end of the movie. These translated words are her own, the following coming at the end, after her miraculous escape through the Russian forces, hand-in-hand with a blond-haired boy:
“All these horrors I’ve heard of during the Nurnberg process, these six million Jews, other thinking people or people of another race, who perished. That shocked me deeply. But I hadn’t made the connection with my past. I assured myself with the thought of not being personally guilty. And that I didn’t know anything about the enormous scale of it. But one day I walked by a memorial plate of Sophie Scholl in the Franz-Joseph-Strasse. I saw that she was about my age and she was executed in the same year I came to Hitler. And at that moment I actually realised that a young age isn’t an excuse. And that it might have been possible to get to know things.”
The leading generals can see the inevitability of defeat – troops are surrendering where the Führer wants them to fight to the death and never to surrender. His orders are being disobeyed, often because there simply are not the troops nor the arms, and the end is nigh. The focal point of this movie is Hitler, whether or not he is on screen, such is the vast, overwhelming presence of the man – and boy, what a Hitler.
On occasions I’ve been known to rail against movie distributors for the frequently undeserved superlatives and quotes taken out of context to create a misleading impression of a movie one would wish to see or buy on DVD. Never have I taken the distributors to task for underplaying a performance, though the quote on the back cover of Downfall (“Der Untergang”), attributed to The Times, reading “Bruno Ganz is superb” is bland and barely scratches the surface of the more eloquent epithets one could apply to Herr Ganz‘s performance. The ones that occur to me might include “staggering” and “chilling” – and certainly I’d rate it in among the top ten acting performances ever recorded on film.
Consider this: actors have been playing and mimicking Hitler since before World War II (here are a few), though I can recall none that truly got under the skin of the man, captured totally his motives, made us truly believe they were him. The sheer intensity of performance will stay with me for a very long time. Rarely before have I seen a piece of acting without thinking “there is an actor playing a character” – with Ganz it could easily have been fly-on-the-wall documentary footage. I don’t doubt the fearful reactions of the actors in lesser roles was absolutely genuine when confronted both with the sheer ferocity but also the pathos of Ganz’s leader. Hitler was unquestionably a man of incredible personal charisma, yet Ganz matches him blow for blow.
It is a terrifying and mesmerising portrayal of a paranoid tyrant at the point in the cycle of denial that acceptance of defeat – the truth known by all that his empire is crumbling all around the Führer – but it’s far from being a litany of frustrated rants. The man portrayed at the start of the movie is charming, charismatic; by the end his left hand trembles uncontrollably, his face twitches, his body stoops, his orders that the bodies of he and Eva, his wife married the day before, should be burned to prevent the Russians capturing them. Anyone can rant, but here the ranting is impotent rage, played with a sadness few could truly emulate.
Even when generals told the truth, Hitler did not believe them. At one point in the movie he rants on about their perceived failings, here translated:
“That was an order! Steiner’s assault was an order! Who do you think you are to dare disobey an order I give? So this is what it has come to! The military has been lying to me. Everybody has been lying to me, even the SS! Our generals are just a bunch of contemptible, disloyal cowards… Our generals are the scum of the German people! Not a shred of honour! They call themselves generals. Years at military academy just to learn how to hold a knife and fork! For years, the military has hindered my plans! They’ve put every kind of obstacle in my way! What I should have done… was liquidate all the high-ranking officers, as Stalin did!”
After Steiner failed to comply with an order to attack, the bitterness only becomes worse:
“Traitors! I’ve been betrayed and deceived from the very beginning! What a monstrous betrayal of the German people, but all those traitors will pay. They’ll pay with their own blood. They shall drown in their own blood!”
But if you thought that Ganz was the only reason to watch Downfall, think again. Quite apart from the horrors of shelling at street level in a near-derelict Berlin, there are chilling moments aplenty. The one that made my blood run cold was Frau Göbbels feeling her six drugged children cyanide capsules before she and her husband engaged in a ritual murder/suicide outside the bunker, dying for the Third Reich (like the Hitlers, they are/were then doused in petrol and burned.) “Sleep tight, children,” she says and you wonder what kind of woman could possibly do that to the children she loved.
In fact, of all the Nazi leaders portrayed here, Göbbels (in the person of Ulrich Matthes) is the least human, though even he is bitten when Hitler appears to reject his most devoted subject. All the top brass are there – Bormann, Himmler, Speer, Keitel, von Griem, Mohnke, Hewel, Fegelein and of course Eva Braun – all except the traitor. The apparent betrayal of the most trusted lieutenant, Göring, meant that everyone was questioned. Some get drunk, most shoot themselves when the Russians arrive, all know it is the end of the dream, and it is that threat that looms large.
Not easy viewing but believe me, this is a war film you have to see – every bit as much as Das Boot told you about the undersea war, this one tells you about the demise of the Nazi era.