“Compassion for the weak is a betrayal of nature.”
2004. Germany. Rated R. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Starring Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouth, Ulrich Matthews, Juliane Kohler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkl and Thomas Kretschmann.
A movie that gained some notoriety because of the presence of Adolf Hitler as the central character, the Oscar-nominated 2004 German film Downfall still managed to slip under the radar despite being critically acclaimed. It is a fiercely interesting, well-produced and acted film, with some absolutely devastating scenes that are hard to watch. While the subject matter is difficult and not meant for everyone, I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the material or in just seeing a powerful film.
Hitler’s name has become so synonymous with evil (and rightly so) that it’s easy to forget that he was not a supernatural force, but a human being, albeit a disturbed, sociopathic human being. It is also a taboo subject, but the truth is that not all the Nazis were inherently bad men, even those in Hitler’s inner circle — they were people not strong enough to avoid succumbing to the environment and responded by blindly followed their leader. In an era in our country where questioning the actions of the leadership is labeled by many as unpatriotic it is important to see that situation in the extreme. This is a film that dares its viewers to consider whether there is a difference between evil people and people who do evil things.
Based on a number of novels, particularly the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary, Tradul Junge (Lara), Downfall focuses on Hitler’s (Ganz) final days holed up in the bunker in Berlin with his mistress Eva Braun (Kohler) and generals and advisers, including Joseph Goebbels (Matthes) and his wife (Harfouch). The narrative shifts to many points of view, following, in addition to Hitler and his bunker mates, a member of the hitler youth, a pair of doctors, and a rebellious high-ranking soldier (Kretschmann). It captures the growing dread of everyone that Hitler has completely lost it but how the undying loyalty of a few makes it impossible for the more rational thinkers to have a say.
The film is very well directed and it does really feel like you’re there, both in the bunker, and during the war scenes. Some of it is a ittle too stylized but on the whole the production values are very high. Hirschbiegel paces it well, and although it’s 2 1/2 hours, it never drags, and the transitions between the different focuses is never awkward.
Ganz had the difficult task of walking a fine line between going over the top and keeping Hitler realistic, but not letting him be anywhere close to sympathetic. On the whole, he succeeds, but there are some moments where he has some trouble, but this is a role with about as high a degree of difficulty as it comes. Kohler is perfect as the deluded mistress Braun as is Matthes as Goebbels and most of the other performances are solid. I was a little underwhelmed with Lara as Junge, who ostensibly is the audience surrogate, but she really doesn’t do a lot besides look sad and wide-eyed. The standout performance for me was one of the doctors, as played by Berkl and Ferch as Albert Speer — they both do a great job of conveying the characters’ weariness, intelligence and the defeated nature of once-good men realizing the weight of their actions.
Certainly, the film may humanize some characters who may not deserve it. It sanitizes some of the more brutal events. But Downfall, at the least, will make you think — about people who believe so strongly in any set of beliefs or ideals that they refuse to question them, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. About the old saying that all it takes for evil to flourish is good men doing nothing. And about an important lesson to reinforce time and time again, especially in a country that is at war, that it is always easy to see what “we” are doing as right and what “they” are doing as wrong — but there are consequences for always thinking that way.