When Downfall (2004) was released, I recall that there was a fair bit of controversy that surrounded the film. I could be wrong, but I believe much of this was due to the fact that film was unafraid to show the human side of Adolf Hitler. Personally, I don’t see an issue with this approach, because unfortunately Hitler did exist, he was human and he was responsible for evil that is in essence indescribable. And Downfall does an exceptional and necessarily harrowing job of bringing this to life.
The film opens with genuine footage of an elderly women speaking to the camera with regret at her naiveté during the Nazi years. It is not clear initially who this woman is (I thought it may be Leni Riefenstahl), but all will become clear after watching the film. The film then shifts into the main body of proceedings, which depict Hitler’s final days as the Nazi hold on Berlin crumbles all around him. Different people have different expectations when viewing a war film. For me, to consider any war film as great, it has to make plain one thing – war is fucked up. This film achieves that I think. It expertly brings to life the very real and very visceral terror of being involved in war, even if you are ensconced in the inner circle of the Nazi command. And despite its total focus on the Nazi side of things, the film’s messages about war are universal. The imagery is powerful and the war scenes look extremely realistic and immediate, taking advantage of what I suspect is a pretty substantial budget. In additional to all of that, the film is quite educational for those, who like me, are not entirely familiar with how the war unfolded. The disconnect between Hitler and his armed forces in the closing days of the war for example is shown.
Downfall is for all intents and purposes a character study of Adolf Hitler. He is the central character and all of the film’s events revolve around him. The film does portray Hitler as more human than monster. But to criticise the film for this, is to me, a little strange. By having Hitler human, it gives the film a jolt of realism. At times he is quite polite and dare I say it, a nice guy. He is also a little broken down and hunched throughout. This is the point though, Hitler was exceedingly evil and also a human just like the rest of us. Which makes it all the more important that Downfall is able to show the absolutely unhinged nature of his ideals and plans. Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Adolf shocks each time he lets out his explosive and rage-filled side. I think this makes him all the more a disturbing character than if he was shown as just another raving cinematic madman. Indeed Hitler’s eventual suicide is portrayed in such a way that you do sense some of his humanity and vulnerability in the face of death. Challenging? Yes, but in my opinion in no way manipulative or questionable. The film also sheds a light on those around Hitler, showing, though perhaps not analysing, the blind devotion that the leader inspires in his followers.
Downfall is confronting, as it definitely should be. The film manages to bring something new to a cinematic exploration of World War II, in particular the way it deals with the character of Hitler. If you have any interest in this shameful chapter of human history, then Downfall is worth making the time for.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny