Based largely on historical texts and memoirs, Downfall is about the last days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich; as Russians advance on Berlin, Hitler refuses to surrender, much to the frustration of his generals.
The film begins with an interview, taken from the documentary Blind Spot, featuring Hitler’s former secretary Traudl Junge, reflecting on what she experienced and how she regrets her part in what transpired, stating that being young was no excuse. From there, we are taken into the film and we see Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) as she is appointed as Hitler’s secretary and we experience what she, and the others, went through during those final days. Basing this film largely on factual historical accounts and interviews is incredibly laudable and this atmosphere of reality greatly adds to the impact of the film.
So of course, Adolf Hitler is at the centre of Downfall and he is played excellently by Bruno Ganz. A far cry from the over-the-top, pantomime version we’ve seen in Inglourious Basterds, Ganz plays Hitler genuinely and with confidence; his performance is perfectly realistic, grounded and completely believable. While easily showing the dictator side that we know too well, we also see a certain frailty and vulnerability as he descends into an increasingly paranoid, uncertain state and contemplates suicide, rather than give in to his enemies. He also gets the mannerisms down well, with a noticeably twitching hand as well as a hunched posture.
Inevitably there are scenes where “Shouty Hitler” shows up, but rather than provoking laughter as Inglourious Basterds did, the scenes in which he berates his generals for being weak, spineless cowards are incredibly tense and even a bit frightening.
Downfall is also filled with battle scenes and there is essentially artillery fire throughout the whole film. These scenes, in which we see children fighting on the front lines, are suitably jarring, uncompromising and brutal. In addition, there are mass suicides, limbs being sawed off and bodies being left in the street. It is plain to see that German people suffered greatly during the war and this film strives to show that.
For me, the most shocking scene was the “mercy killing” poisoning of the Goebbels children by their mother, Magda (Corrina Harfouch), a scene that the actors involved found incredibly difficult to carry out, Harfouch almost broke down while doing it. This scene certainly provoked my biggest emotional reaction, as I inevitably felt anger and disgust. Scenes such as this one make Downfall the brutal, unflinching film that it is.
Honest, brutal and unflinching, Downfall is an excellently crafted film, confidently showing the last days of the Third Reich. Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler is exceptional.
★ ★ ★ ★