Downfall

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

2004

In case you hadn’t guessed by now I’m a film fanatic. I will watch anything and everything with very few exceptions. I may not always like everything I watch but you never know if you will unless you try. This means I am quite content to watch foreign films that as subtitles. Sure you have to concentrate that little bit more but then that’s actually a plus as you immediately become more engaged with the film. There is a purpose to this ramble by the way and that purpose is … don’t be put off by a film because it’s in another language. You never know what brilliance you may be missing out on.

Now I’m gonna use the word authenticity – a much abused word when it comes to films of a historical nature but one for all intents and purposes fits this film. The fact that Downfall is a German film lends it authenticity. It is more believable and therefore more dramatic than if the demise of the Nazi regime and those at the very heart of it had been shot in English or even worse given the Hollywood treatment and Americanized! (Just an aside to say I have nothing against Hollywood. I’m not a film snob. I love Hollywood as it introduced me to the magical world of movies and I continue to love it today!)

Although the film is about the downfall of Hitler (and ultimately the Nazi regime) the film centers of two lesser characters, a doctor and Frau Junge, a young girl hired as one of Hitler’s secretary. Indeed the film opens with archive footage of Frau Junge talking in an extremely frank manner about some of the decisions she made. it links reality with the fictional account. Hirschbiegel also closes the film with Junge discussing events which gives the film a sense of completion. “This disorienting matter-of-factness is the key to Downfall‘s brilliance.” (908, Mark Holcomb, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Downfall begins fairly late on in the war, starting in 1942 and jumping to 1945 within the first 5 minutes, but then that makes sense given the subject matter. There is little to no music for the majority of this film which is actually something I enjoyed. Rather than music you get the sound of shells, bombs and artillery rounds falling in the background more often than not as Berlin begins to fall under the Russian advance. The music begins to emerge at about 45 minutes in. As seems to be the case with war films the music is very emotive which usually works. However for me it didn’t in this film as it made me feel for characters that I really didn’t want to feel for.

The cinematography is wonderful with little details such as the Nazi emblem on the china ware giving it that feel of realism. The color palette is a cold one made up predominantly of blues and grays and could be seen as a visual reflection of the cold nature of some of the most iconic figures in history. There are also splashes of red throughout the film most noticeably in the flags but also picked up in the carpet in the bunker. The film has iconic settings such as Hitler’s bunker and of course Berlin city centre with the eagle emblazoned on buildings. Hirschbiegel uses lots of empty frames to show the abandonment of Berlin, a once thriving and bustling city. In contrast to that the shots of the underground network of bunkers are crowded with those surrounding Hitler in those final weeks. There is little natural light which adds to the enclosed and sometimes claustrophobic feel to the film due to the majority taking place underground. The scenes of a devastated Berlin, a city ravaged by continual bombing, are beautiful.

The costumes are gorgeous – there is something elegant and sophisticated about the uniforms, particularly those of the SS, despite the association now forever intertwined with them. There is something disturbing about the Hitler Youth, seen here manning the anti-tank weapons, maybe due to the loss of innocence. The film becomes slightly morbid with frank discussions about the best way to kill yourself when the Russians arrive.

“Hitler, Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), and the rest are assuredly human here; but the point is that the truly monstrous usually are.” (908) It must have been really difficult to play not only the part of Hitler but those of the core group of Nazis within the inner circle. Maybe even more so for German actors. I can’t imagine the places they will have had to get into the right mind-set. There is dissension in the ranks which becomes more obvious throughout the course of the film. As does the sense that some are lacking confidence in Hitler’s decisions and leadership. And yet there is also this blind, unswerving loyalty to the man … a concept that is completely foreign to me. How was he able to command such loyalty and powerful feelings?

Eva Braun comes across as being a bit batty and delusional. The casting got it right, especially with Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels, his emaciated face and soulless black eyes, and Bruno Ganz as the megalomaniac Hitler, who has the characteristics of the man spot on. I like that the tremor in his hand becomes more pronounced throughout the film as the war takes its toll on his health. Seeing Hitler disintegrate as victory slips from his grasp is an interesting moment and one that is surprisingly poignant and quiet, despite being preceded by one of his infamous rants. I do have a bit of an issue with the following line “But, gentlemen, if you believe I am going to leave Berlin, you are seriously mistaken. I’d rather blow my brains out.” This is just my own interpretation and I’m probably wrong but to me it makes him seem noble, a captain going down with his ship as it were and I still believe he took the cowards way out. Everyone who committed suicide did. If you can order and carry out the atrocities committed during World War II have the courage to accept the consequences of your actions!

I don’t really understand the desolation causing people to take their own lives but then this could be because I have never really experienced war (Afghanistan and Iraq are too distant to directly affect me) and I have never lived under occupation. Downfall makes you think about the war overall rather than just one aspect such as the Holocaust. Having said that it also makes me more directly angry especially when Hitler says “What I am proud of is that I openly confronted the Jews and I cleansed the German lands of Jewish poison.” There is an actual person saying that whereas in films like Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg) and The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski) Hitler is more of an abstract figure rather than a physical presence. 

Hirschbiegel presents the events as they happened with no sense of judgement.  No where is this more evident than when Frau Goebbels murders her own children (something Goebbels doesn’t have the stomach to do himself!) He includes info titles paired with their filmic counterparts at the end of the film which tell the audience the fate of all the characters still alive at the end of the war. Another way of linking the reality to the fictional account and adding to the sense of completion.  It seems wrong to say I enjoyed Downfall and that probably isn’t the right word but I am glad I watched it. I knew Hitler, Eva Braun and the Goebbels family committed suicide but that was about it and now I feel better informed about what happened at the end of the war whereas before I only had the vaguest idea. Downfall is well worth watching even with the German, and sometimes Russian, subtitles.

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