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When I heard that there was a new film coming out about the last days of Adolf Hitler, I wasn't that interested. There have been many films about Hitler and at least a couple come to mind that are about his last days, Hitler: The last 10 Days with Alec Guinness and The Bunker with Anthony Hopkins. But once I saw the trailer, Downfall appealed to me, first of all because it's a German movie with a German cast, i.e., no Anthony Hopkins or Alec Guinness with funny moustaches, and second, because the story is being told through the eyes of Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge. Junge, then in her early twenties, spent three years as Hitler's secretary, beginning in 1942 and ending with Hitler's death. Even though she was constantly with Hitler, she was strangely detached from what Hitler was doing. So being trapped in the bunker with a delusional Hitler is a good metaphor for her state of mind. Junge was with Hitler right up to the end, even taking down Hitler's last Testament in shorthand and typing it up just before he and Eva Braun committed suicide.
Downfall, which is in German with subtitles, focuses on the last 12 days of Hitler's life in his bunker below Berlin as the Russian Army slowly closed in. The well-known cast of Nazis are all there. In addition to Hitler (Bruno Ganz), Braun (Juliane Köhler) and Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), there are Goebbels, Bormann, Goering, Himmler, Speer, Keitel, and Jodl, plus lots of lesser known characters. When the film begins, the end of the war is already a foregone conclusion but Hitler is still planning for victory mostly by issuing commands to armies that no longer exist. Deep down inside the bunker is a surreal world disturbed only by the odd tremor from explosions above or by harried visitors from the outside world.
I found Downfall to be an excellent film. There is something compelling about this story about these monsters who are all about to meet their own deaths. And the matter of fact way in which the story, based on Junge's book, is told, brings it home even more strongly. This story is all about the banality of evil. When he is not raging at his generals, Hitler appears to be a sick old man who loves his dog. There has been a bit of controversy about this movie because it tries to portray Hitler and the others as human beings. But along with the banality are many chilling scenes. Most people are trying to convince Hitler to leave Berlin before it's too late but Speer advises him to be "onstage when the curtain falls." Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife (Corinna Harfouch), in counterpoint to their angelic children who they poison before killing themselves, seem like evil personified. There are many amazing scenes. One of the best is when the general, who is bravely fighting against the Russians, is called to the bunker to be shot for dereliction of duty. He convinces Hitler that he is loyal and Hitler puts him in charge of the defence of Berlin. The general responds that he would rather be shot.
Most of the cast were unknown to me. Alexandra Maria Lara is excellent as the young secretary. And Ganz is amazing as Hitler. Ganz has been making movies for over 40 years. He's best known over here for Wings of Desire. The only other actor that I knew was Juliane Köhler, who plays Braun. She starred in Nowhere in Africa, which won the 2003 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
By the end of the movie, you may feel like you've been trapped in the bunker yourself. It is like watching a train wreck that you can't tear your eyes away from. You wonder how these people can go through the motions of normal life knowing that the end is so near. Junge, of course, survives to tell her story but most of the rest either kill themselves or are caught and executed. Junge seems unaware of what is really happening. She is just the boss' secretary. There is a powerful scene at the end of the movie which shows an interview with the real Junge, shortly before her death in 2002, where she admits that she should have realized what was going on. The Sea Inside won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and it deserved it, but Downfall, which was also nominated, was just as worthy.