Downfall (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) was hired to be Adolf Hitler’s (Bruno Ganz) secretary in 1942. The real Traudl Junge, in the opening shot of the film, confessed that she wasn’t really aware of what Nazism was about when she ignored her family’s warnings against joining the growing political movement. Cut to 1945, she still worked for Hitler as the Russians inched closer to Berlin. The majority of the picture focused on the growing sense of dread Hitler and those close to him as they foolishly decided to stay in the secret bunker instead of fleeing for their lives. I saw this film a month before I started the university and about five years later, its impact on me remained the same. While Ganz’ performance was absolutely tremendous, especially when he expressed explosive rage, I spent more time observing his quieter moments as he questioned where his leadership had gone awry. While I did not feel sorry for the monster in him, the actor and the filmmakers successfully revealed a more human side to Hitler by highlighting our fears. Specifically, our fear of death, abandonment, and our accomplishments ultimately amounting to nothing. I thought it was a brave and risky move because no one can deny the evil that cost over fifty million lives. The supporting characters were just as fascinating. There SS Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann) who attempted to talk his comrades into leaving the bunker but they were too deeply embedded in their illusions of last-minute victory. There was a boy with a talent for destroying tanks. He loved the recognition and was willing to put his young life in the line for praise. However, he wasn’t even sure what he was fighting for. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel) found horror when he stumbled upon areas where the elderly were left to die and unsanitary surgeries were performed. And then there was Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), wife of Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Hitler’s right-hand man, who foolishly and selfishly brought her six innocent children to the bunker just to be with her Führer. She claimed that she couldn’t imagine a life for her kids without National Socialism. The movie was able grab ahold of the various story strands and weaved them into a coherent and meaningful product despite the chaos and confusion. Lastly, while the film managed to put Hitler under a more humanistic angle, I’m glad it never lost track of the crimes he committed–crimes that no amount of jail time or community service can off-set. While he led the murder of over two million Jews, he killed his countrymen as well. Those who he considered weak, like the elderly and people with disability, were left to perish. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Downfall,” taken out of its historical context, was ultimately a story of responsibility. Our leaders are responsible for us, but we mustn’t forget that we have a responsibility toward ourselves. Questioning or usurping our ineffective leaders is not tantamount to betraying our country.

6 replies »

  1. A very fine film which was unfairly attacked by many with the accusation that it attempted to put a human face on Hitler, which it did in many respects and is the more valuable work for it. No matter how our rational instincts would like to label him a “monster” outside of the realm of the human species, he was, after all, just a man, and with that simple banal acknowledgement his actions become more- not less- incomprehensible. The cruel lessons of history are never served by the comforting diminution of our baser figures into more palatable caricature.

    • I think you’ll love it. It has the best Hitler portrayal in any movies I’ve seen with Hitler in it (so far). The parodies on YouTube never fail to make me laugh.

  2. I also admire this film very much, although I don’t necessarily think I’ll watch it again anytime soon. (I saw it in the cinema when it came out). The standout factors here are, as you rightly point, Bruno Ganz’s performance and the entire concept of ‘humanizing Hitler’. Both are daring attempts, and they succeed. That said, I’m not sure if Hitler is at much ‘humanized’ as he is, for once, depicted in situations of distress and vulnerability, which are not used for comedic or moralistic effect (read; Made for us all to understand that a pathetic and evil man he was). There will always be a need for us to be reminded of the atrocities he and his regime committed, but this this film does nothing to undermine that memory. The one thing I could have done without was the epilogue-like sequence outside the bunker.

    Have you seen the documentary which is titled ‘Im Totenwinkel’ in German? It features interviews with the real Traudl Junge, and is very much worth a look, even for someone like me, who is actually not that interested in WW2, whether as history or cinema.

    • I have not seen that documentary. It’s available on Netflix, though, so I’ve added it. As usual, thanks for the recommendation. :) If I were to point at a weakness in the film, I felt as though it could have used more of Traudl Junge beyond just looking horrified and confused. Having said that, the actress did a good job given the amount of time she’d been given on screen.

      Looking forward to the doc.

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