A review of “Downfall” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for violence, language, disturbing images

Run Time: 2 hours, 26 minutes. In German with English subtitles

 

 

Humanizing Adolf Hitler is a risky proposition.  Assuming the man was less than a monster compels one to re-open the wounds of an unspeakable period in modern history.

Which is precisely what director Oliver Hirschbiegel sets out to do in this dramatic re-telling of the steady decline of Hitler’s maniacal Aryan fantasy.

November 1942, Berlin.  An eager young professional named Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is chosen by the Fuehrer himself (Swiss actor Bruno Ganz) to act as his personal secretary come hell or high water.

It’s mostly hell. The cracks in Hitler’s perfectly executed plan are beginning to splinter while his dictatorial rule crumbles.  The Soviet Army is approaching central Berlin and appears to be overpowering the German military machine.

Naturally Hitler must be on stage when the curtain falls.  He refuses to flee Berlin and speaks of those Reich-members who wish to as “ruthless careerists”. Junge’s naive perspective is that of a sad but alluring man whose brilliant leadership is failing along with his tenuous health.

Hitler’s monumental tantrums regarding betrayal and deceit (“the truest of the true are turncoats”) increase in frequency and lunacy as his vanishing sanity hangs by a thread.  He continues to conspire his way to universal dominance while berating his minions and bemoaning his inevitable fate.  “Mein Kampf” my foot.

Those who believe in a bleak future without National Socialism take matters into their own hands with alarming alacrity and finality.  Zealous players like Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his patriotic wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) execute their own personal atrocities in the name of their fragmented chief.

Slight pacing problems pepper the lengthy running time, the action swinging between claustrophobic stretches in a stifling underground bunker and abrupt acts of unspeakable violence (beware ye faint of heart). Ganz is astonishing, going so far as to inspire tiny stabs of sympathy for the collapse of an ambitious but ugly dream and tackling his unseemly subject with guts, vigor and a fair share of eerie charm.

To the bitter end Hitler believed he did right by openly confronting the Jews and cleansing the land of “Jewish poison”. To critics who bash Downfall for overly-humanizing history’s most infamous villain I say what could be more monstrous than that?