See if you can guess which political lady I’m describing. She has perfect hair. Pearls. Red blazer adorned with a little patriotic pin. She’s getting older, but she watches her weight and still looks wonderful at state functions. She comes across as both formal and approachable, and she’s totally dedicated to her cause.
It could be anyone, including Barbara Boxer, Hillary Clinton, or Laura Bush. That’s what makes the answer so chilling. She is Magda Goebbels, as portrayed by Corinna Harfouch, wife of Hitler’s head of the S.S., Joseph Goebbels. She’s just one of the “monsters” of history given flesh and blood in Oscar-nominated Downfall.
R for Strong violence, disturbing images, some nudity
Downfall is the story of the final days of the Third Reich. Most of the film takes place in the spring of 1945 in Berlin, mostly in Hitler’s bunker, where he and his advisors watched the world collapse around them.
Downfall isn’t long on plot. What it offers instead is a tour of the last days of Germany’s involvement in World War II. Bernd Eichinger’s screenplay was adapted from the writings of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary (rent the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary to see on-camera interviews with her), and Inside Hitler’s Bunker, by author Joachim Fest. Downfall is two and a half hours long, but it is so engaging that the time zips by.
Several things contribute to the movie’s tight grip. First is the tension and claustrophobia. Our protagonists are holed up in a concrete bunker in a besieged city. We know the inevitable outcome, but that doesn’t dampen the tension. Walks above ground become more and more chaotic and dangerous. We hear the mortar fire get closer and closer. Our leader’s temper gets shorter and shorter, and the number of loyal hangers-on inside the bunker dwindles.
Second is the well-rounded characters. This is not a movie “about” Adolf Hitler, although he is a central figure. It is a as much about the Goebbels family, Eva Braun, Junge, architect-cum-production-minister Albert Speer, and the half-dozen other prominent characters. To their credit, the screenwriter, director, and producers all allowed these secondary characters to have lives of their own. The actors themselves bring the characters to life.
Protagonists and Villains
The characters are brought to life by a wonderful ensemble. I’ve already mentioned Harfouch as Magda Goebbels. Bruno Ganz makes a surprisingly convincing Hitler. He seems a little too tall and a little too well-fed, but his age, his sag, his temper are all spot-on.
Ulrich Matthes, with his sunken, gaunt, and stern face makes a terrifying Joseph Goebbels. But his character is completed only later, when we meet Magda and their children. Her perfect political facade makes his monstrous appearance seem much less monstrous. “Sunken, gaunt, and stern” becomes merely “thin and harried.” This bulldog of Hitler’s suddenly takes on a human dimension.
Ernst-Günter Schenck (Christian Berkel), a Nazi physician, is one of the more level-headed characters in the film. When everyone else in the bunker has resorted to getting drunk and discussing the best method of suicide, Schenck looks for ways to reduce the harm. There appears to be some debate over whether the character is true to the man, but he provides some much-needed contrast in the death-obsessed cult of the bunker.
Heino Ferch (Wintersleepers, The Harmonists) makes architect Albert Speer aloof, and more loyal to the Reich than to Hitler personally. When Hitler asks whether he should stay in Berlin, Speer (who designed the Nuremberg rally captured by Leni Riefenstahl’s cameras) says “You must be on stage when the curtain falls.” At their final parting, Speer makes it clear that he is his own man, and not a puppet.
Politics and Blind Faith
The flip side of Speer’s independence is his responsibility. If he is not Hitler’s puppet, then he is not “just following orders.” He bears some responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis (and in fact, Speer pled guilty at the Nuremburg trials). The question of culpability is raised repeatedly by the film and by its German director and screenwriter. To what extent are German citizens responsible for Nazi atrocities?
When Hitler and Goebbels are advised to surrender and spare the citizens of Berlin, they both say that they have no sympathy for the people — after all, they gave Hitler a mandate, and they should expect to pay the price. Coming from their mouths, it’s a hard argument to swallow. In fact, one is inclined to think the dialogue is included solely to show how cold these politicians have become. But at the end of the film when Junge says the same thing — that ordinary citizens like her bear some responsibility — it’s hard to dismiss.
The question of moral culpability is interesting and complex. Were white American northerners in the 1800s guilty of permitting slavery? What about the abolitionists? What about those who didn’t support slavery but didn’t actively fight it? Traudl Junge seems to be pretty firm in assigning blame to ordinary citizens, but is she right? Should we listen to her? It is a particularly relevant question in my country today, where some politicians want to change the meaning of “torture” to allow government officials to perform once-unacceptable levels of brutality. How much resistance must I offer to avoid being morally culpable?
The fact that Downfall raises relevant questions about modern politics is what makes it so much better than your average WWII movie or Hitler documentary. Hitler is a fascinating character, but it is too easy to dismiss him and the Nazis as monsters. If we label them evil in a black-and-white portrait of morality, we ignore the fact of their overwhelming support from the German people. We deny the possibility that it could happen again. But really, all it took is the right mix of politics and blind faith, and we humans have not evolved far enough in the last 60 years to be in the clear. That message is what makes Downfall so chilling.