Saving Private Hitler
Downfall Salvages the Personal Side of the Führer
Is it right to treat Adolf Hitler as a normal human being, as the new German film Downfall does?
Hitler had to be charming in private and charismatic in public; he was a politician. How else would he have won such loyalty from his inner circle and the German population? If it does nothing else, Downfall provides the much-needed reminder that a leader given “a mandate” by the voters, as Joseph Goebbels says of Hitler in the film, can be nice to dogs and small children, even as he commits great sins against humanity.
But Downfall does much more than that. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s picture, one of the most expensive ever made in Germany, is as good a war epic as has ever been filmed. It manages the challenge of juggling multiple characters and multiple plot lines with rare finesse, cutting from the tense meetings inside Hitler’s bunker at the end of World War II to the mayhem and carnage on the streets of Berlin outside. Hirschbiegel pulls this off by seizing on riveting visual details—a golden cyanide capsule cradled in a palm, the dangling feet of a lynched dissident, a swirling blizzard of papers tossed out of office windows, Eva Braun jitterbugging in a backless dress as Russian artillery shells rattle the walls.
Hirschbiegel gets terrific help from a marvelous cast and from screenwriter Bernd Eichinger, who never forces his sharply drawn characters to spit out bald patches of exposition. Instead we have to piece things together from eavesdropping on matter-of-fact conversations. Cinematographer Rainer Klausmann captures not only the random horror of urban warfare but also the claustrophobia of the comfortably appointed bunker. Editor Hans Funck moves so surely from plot strand to plot strand—from drunken parties inside the bunker to severed limbs outside on the street, from Hitler smiling kindly at Goebbels’ six children singing like the Trapp Family to the Führer screaming at his generals—that we never get lost.
Bruno Ganz, the finest actor to come out of the German New Wave, plays Hitler not as the public orator or the cartoon villain but as an ideologically blinded leader who is all the scarier because he is so human. He has the Charlie Chaplin mustache, the floppy thatch of hair, and the rubbery salute, but he also has so much avuncular charm and messianic self-confidence that it makes sense that his young secretaries would get giggly and star-struck around him. The screenplay isn’t overloaded with anti-Semitic rhetoric, so when a particularly nasty remark finally surfaces in the film’s second half, tossed off as if it were an assumption barely worth restating, it shocks the secretaries almost as much as it does us.
We view the story through the eyes of one of those secretaries, the 24-year-old Bavarian beauty Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). Like all the other characters in this scrupulously researched movie, Junge was a real person, the only person from the final bunker to reach the end of the century. In fact, Downfall ends with the 81-year-old Junge in a clip from the 2002 documentary Blind Spot, to remind us how real and how inexcusable the devotion of Hitler’s inner circle was.
In the end, though, Downfall is more than a penetrating portrait of charismatic evil, more than a sweeping war epic; it’s also a fascinating look at the last days of a doomed cause. Almost the entire film takes place in April 1945, when the Russian army had encircled Berlin and was tightening its grip block by block. The Germans had essentially lost the war when the month began, and an early surrender would have saved thousands of German lives. The filmmakers are less interested in the strategy of the military end-game than in the psychology of people coming to grips with the fact that the cause they had believed in and worked for so wholeheartedly was failing.
Some, such as Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) and Ernst-Günther Schenck (Christian Berkel), may have done their best for this evil cause, but they are at least able to recognize facts and argue for pragmatism. Others, especially Herr and Frau Goebbels (the very scary Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch) and Hitler himself, cling to far-fetched fantasies of turning the war around. They have fused their identities so thoroughly with the cause that one can’t exist without the other. And director Hirschbiegel makes clear that the self-destruction of such characters, fully human as they are, was as inevitable as their defeat.