The Downfall
(Der Untergang) (2004)
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Synopsis & Analysis
Oliver Hirschbiegel's The Downfall, which relates the events of the final days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) as these were witnessed by one of his secretaries, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), is a well crafted, captivating, and surprisingly moving film.

The director deserves credit for not depicting Hitler as a demented monster, as some cartoon supervillain. Hirschbiegel instead reveals a man who can be affable and considerate to others, and who is thus very human. There is, thanks to this approach, no indication that an effort is being made to trick the viewer into thinking that the world is divided into kind, decent individuals and cackling, wild-eyed fiends out to do evil. The most horrible crimes are presented as being committed by those very men who, being liked and admired by their fellows, are able to inspire those others and lead them to perform atrocities. Cruelty and bigotry are thus not made into alien qualities possessed only by the overtly evil, who are wholly unlike ourselves, but are given an ordinariness that is even more frightening.

This is not to say that much of The Downfall is not animated by Hitler's increasingly severe delusions. As his inevitable end approaches, the dictator's mind is clearly being affected. He imagines impossible solutions, as many others have in similarly hopeless situations, dreaming that armies that no longer exist will come to his rescue. He rants in panicky despair and blames others for failing him. The effect so achieved, fortunately, is so recognizable that it has a touching veracity.

There is such a humanity in Hirschbiegel's presentation of Hitler that the viewer actually feels compassion for the character. Whether the director intended this or not, this ability to arouse such feelings is one of the most appealing qualities the movie has. Instead of merely feeling sorrow for certain individuals he feels are worthy of his compassion, the viewer sympathizes even with one of history's most frightening mass murderers. When he does so, the moviegoer will, perhaps, perceive the contrast of this universal compassion with the restricted compassion of such persons as Hitler. He may realize that it is only when a person has compassion for all living things, and not just for some, that he ceases to be capable of victimizing any other being. If a person excludes some as unworthy, then he remains able to act towards such individuals in whatever brutal manner pleases him. While I will concede that Hirschbiegel probably had no intention of eliciting such a reaction as I have described, he certainly does expose the humanity of a monster and, by doing so, he allows the viewer to empathize with that man.

What is more, the feelings of the various persons of Hitler's entourage are also skilfully delineated. The viewer is made to see how nearly all of them dread the coming of the Russians as though the arrival of the Soviet army were to mark the end of the world, as indeed it did for many of them. He watches as some give in to drink and debauchery, hoping to enjoy their last moments of life, how some play at being soldiers or Nazis until the very end, and how some resolve to survive the catastrophe occurring around. Witnessing such a variety of human reactions, the viewer is sure to be touched in a profound way.

The most affecting of these sequences are perhaps also the most frightening, namely those in which the viewer is shown how many persons are blinded by loyalty to the ideology to which they have devoted themselves. He watches as several such individuals, being unable to abide a world without such doctrines, kill themselves, and as others commit horrible crimes, including murdering their fellows either for attempting to survive or for their own supposed good. Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch), for example, before shooting themselves, poison their children to save them from living in a world without Hitler.

Lastly, I should add that the film is often visually enthralling. The director dwells upon the ruins of Berlin and exposes how the borders of the Reich are ever contracting as German tanks slowly pull back, as German units are utterly decimated by their enemies, and as a given character looks across a city street into some building or another that recently had been part of his country but which is now part of that of his enemies. Within this devastated landscape, Hirschbiegel has set a grey block, the entrance to Hitler's bunker, and, through the narrow doorway of this place, he leads the viewer into the cramped corridors and tiny rooms that have been dug into the earth underneath the ruined chancellery building. There, among these claustrophobic tunnels, Hitler and those with him wait trapped and helpless for their deaths. The place is deliciously oppressive.

Even if it falls short of greatness, The Downfall is a mesmerizing, well made film that will not only move the viewer but will astonish him by doing so.

Review by Keith Allen

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