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I have always been intrigued by films that show World War II from the perspective of the enemy (that is, the Germans or the Japanese). Given that so many films on this subject show the Allies as the protagonists, its jarring to see a story featuring the losing side of the war. But it’s also interesting because these films (like Das Boot) remind us that, for all the atrocities committed, the enemy were human beings with human desires (though this does not excuse their actions in any way).
This is why I’ve been drawn to the 2004 film Downfall since I first saw it on Netflix several years ago. The bulk of the film is set in the last ten days of Adolf Hitler’s rule of Nazi Germany (beginning with his 56th birthday on April 20th, 1945) and ending not long after his suicide. The film’s plot is drawn from several accounts of those days, primarily from the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary (archival footage of the real Junge, who died in 2002 appears at the beginning and end of the film), Albert Speer (Hitler’s architect) and other eyewitness sources.
The film broke a taboo in German cinema by featuring Hitler as one of the main characters (in years past if Hitler appeared at all it was in a cameo role often shot from behind so as to not show the face) in the story. Not only that, but according to what I read after first watching the film, it was one of the first (if not THE first) to have Hitler portrayed by a native German speaker (another taboo broken). Bruno Ganz’s performance as the infamous dictator is chilling and brilliant. The actor spent four months researching how to play Hitler, including studying a rare 11-minute recording of Hitler speaking in a normal tone of voice (the only recording of its kind), practicing an Austrian-accent and observing Parkinson’s patients to better mimic the symptoms Hitler showed toward the end of his life (it is now widely believed that Hitler was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which caused tremors in his hands and stooped his shoulders). Ganz’s performance is brilliant as I said, you have no trouble believing that he is one of the most evil men who ever lived.
I also have to highlight Ulrich Matthes’ performance as propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The actor’s physical similarity to the real Goebbels is uncanny and his peformance will unnerve you to your core.
The film does humanize the Nazi leaders…to a point anyways. These aren’t evil, one-dimensional caricatures by any stretch. No, they’re all fully fleshed out, which really makes them even more terrifying because you see the depths of their twisted thoughts. Don’t worry about potentially feeling sympathy for them (except for the Goebbels children, they might be the only true innocents in the story), you won’t. The story really does bring home the horrors of the last days of the war in Berlin: everything is blasted to pieces, the streets are full of the dead and those left live in a panic bordered on hysteria. There are actually two scenes that show wild parties taking place. It seems that, in light of the Russians being days away, many in Berlin devolved into a “let us drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” sort of attitude. I’m not sure what’s worse, the characters who indulged in senseless parties knowing that all was lost, or the characters who stubbornly held onto their hope in “final victory” until the bitter end.
Downfall is definitely one of those films that you should see at least once before you die, though I warn you there are some pretty intense and graphic moments before the story ends. If you’ve seen Downfall, what did you think of it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day!
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