I have reviewed many war films before, but none of them has been like this one. The common phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ is often true of films; there have been few movies set from the perspective of the German’s in the years since the Second World War, with good reason, but there are still important stories to tell from that side of the conflict. Other than this film, I can only think of one other (The Aftermath, a very forgettable drama from a few years ago). It isn’t that the film is sympathetic to the Nazi regime, quite the opposite, but any movie in which Adolf Hitler is the main protagonist is sure to raise some eyebrows.
I remember talking about this film with my correspondent Ian (who sent me this film), and he said that the film almost makes you feel sorry for the dictator. While I certainly don’t think that was the films’ intent, I can see where he’s coming from. Fair warning to anyone who hasn’t heard of it; it is like no other war film you will ever see. It’s dark, shocking, and utterly riveting. It’s a story of some of histories darkest psyches unravelling as their impending doom looms over them.
In the dying days of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler assembles his top generals and soldiers in his bunker in Berlin, just as the Red Army is closing in. As it becomes more apparent that their situation is hopeless, the despot’s mind begins to unravel as he questions everyone around him and makes arrangements for his demise.
Refreshingly, this is a film I can talk about at length without spoiling it for anyone. We all know how Hitler’s life came to an end after all, but what this film offers is a glimpse at the final days and hours of one of history’s most evil men, as he crumbles from a feared leader in the eyes of his subjects to a frail man falling apart as much in his mind as his body. I’m well aware that this film is not a documentary, so it is wise to allow for some artistic licence, but it has the authoritative feel of a well-researched piece of historical drama; after all, it is based on the diaries of Hitler’s secretary.
It would help if you went into this film expecting something more resembling a political thriller than a war film. There are depictions of battles like many other films of this ilk, but the focus is more on the unfolding drama below ground than above it. Most of the film takes place inside Hitler’s bunker, giving it a claustrophobic feel that only adds to the film’s sense of dread. The bunker feels like a character in itself, only adding to the dismay and mental anguish as the doomed regime deals with its final few days. The walls are very much closing in around them, and they don’t want to be around when it’s the Russians closing in instead.
It certainly isn’t a film for the faint of heart either. It includes several graphic scenes of injury detail and several other examples of the horrors of war. Then there’s the issue of hearing (or rather, reading) the dialogue from the Nazi characters, extolling their virtues and talking of their wish for the extermination of other races. Their general contempt for their civilians will chill you to the core. Even if this is a work of fiction, the accuracy of the portrayals and the fact the dialogue is in German is enough to make it all seem too real for comfort.
It is the performances that make the film come to life. In particular, the central performance of Bruno Ganz is astonishing. It’s so realistic that it’s bone-chilling. Furthermore, it shows the ill-health the Nazi leader was in at the time. Rather than standing out as a strong, charismatic leader, he instead cuts a weak, rather pathetic figure. His vitriol has not weakened, but his body and mind certainly have. Ganz’s performance in the strategy meeting scenes are a tour de force, as the mask of self-assuredness drops, and we see a Hitler who is defeated in his mind long before the war was lost.
I feel I must also applaud how the film is scripted and directed. Its runtime exceeds two hours, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as long as that, the sign of a genuinely engaging narrative and the composition of its more tense scenes are masterful. Highlighting the sense of claustrophobia the film has by setting the pivotal scenes in a cramped room, as the characters start to turn on each other with the enemy drawing ever nearer. It is remarkable stuff.
This film may not be to everyone’s tastes, I must say. Firstly the fact that it’s all in German will put many people off. Still, I preferred seeing these German characters speak their language to each other. It is a German film (well, German co-production) after all, but it is a reasonably accessible experience. The subtitles are easy enough to follow. Even for a particularly dialogue-heavy film, it’s easy to understand what is going on. Its content may also put people off, and that too is understandable. Even if the film isn’t at all sympathetic towards Hitler, it does humanise him a fair bit, but that is partly what makes it all so unnerving.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It’s a welcome change of pace from the usual WWII fare. Focusing on what was going on in the ‘enemy camp’, as it were, rather than telling a familiar story, it feels like a fresh experience. It is a difficult watch, yes, I can’t deny that, but its portrayal of these unsavoury characters is what makes the film so chilling, they are monsters, but they’re human, and that’s what makes them so scary, the fact the people like this can (and indeed still do) exist. Helping this along by some truly fantastic acting and direction, highlighted by an incredible leading performance, Downfall may well be one of the best WWII films I’ve seen in recent memory.