Not so much a Hitler movie as a portrait of a totalitarian machine’s spiritual and emotional collapse, “Downfall” is a cumulatively powerful Goetterdammerung centered on the last 10 days of the bunkered Fuehrer and those around him. Headlined by a tightly-wound, pugnacious perf from Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as Hitler, but with a roster of thesps reading like an A-Z of the German industry, pic will undoubtedly raise discussion in some quarters for its coolly objective, humanistic approach to the characters and subject-matter. But as thoughtful entertainment, cast in depth and going for the long burn, this is classy upscale fare.
World-preemed at the Toronto fest Sept. 14, and opening in Deutschland two days later, subtitled 2½-hour pic still remains a tricky theatrical proposition, despite its merits, outside German-speaking territories. However, strong critical support could generate some biz as a niche attraction, with small-screen sales down the line.
Scripted and produced by Munich-based vet Bernd Eichinger, this is the first German movie to tackle the subject head-on since G.W. Pabst’s B&W “Der letzte Akt” (1956), with legit actor Albin Skoda as Hitler but largely shown through the eyes of an ordinary soldier played by Oskar Werner. Film comes at a timely moment, when fascination with the period and the Third Reich in general is experiencing a renaissance. Indeed, “Downfall” plays as a bigscreen, dramatized accompaniment to “Blind Spot,” Austrian helmer Andre Heller’s controversial 2002 docu interview with Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge (nee Humps).
Junge’s published memoir, along with Third Reich scholar Joachim Fest’s recent tome, “Inside Hitler’s Bunker,” formed the basis of Eichinger’s script. And with her real voice bookending the movie, it’s Junge who remains the audience’s entree into the inner circles of absolute power, as well as being the main avenue for understanding Hitler’s powerful allure with ordinary Germans.
Played with a nice blend of star-struck innocence and fresh-faced shyness by Alexandra Maria Lara (“The Tunnel,” “Naked”), that sets her apart from the rest of the monomaniacal or conflicted characters, Traudl is first seen, in a brief prologue, as a nervous 22-year-old applicant for the job of Hitler’s private secretary in November ’42. When she gets the job, she shrieks for joy.
Film charts the last 10 days of Hitler’s life, from his 56th birthday April 20, 1945, to his suicide April 30, but with a substantial final act focusing on the suicide of Goebbels and his family, plus Traudl’s escape from the city.
Hunched, bleary-eyed and mimicking an Austrian accent thicker than fondue, Ganz understandably dominates every scene he’s in, whether railing against international Jewry, the feebleness of the German people or daily small betrayals. Though sometimes over-cooked — especially compared with the reined-back style of the rest of the cast — Ganz’s playing, especially in quieter moments, is a commanding stab at (without offering any fresh insights into) a character who is effectively impossible to do justice to, as a human being, on screen.
Main surprise is that pic isn’t just a one-man show, unlike previous tries such as the more movie-movie Alec Guinness starrer “Hitler: The Last Ten Days” (1973). Despite plunging immediately in medias res, as Berlin becomes a front-line city and Reich honchos urge Hitler to flee, film succinctly and clearly intros a raft of characters, developing them in parallel with Hitler himself. It’s a tribute to Eichinger’s script and Hirschbiegel’s unshowy, slightly TV-ish helming (similar to his local hit, “The Experiment”) that, when Hitler dies some 40 minutes before the end, there are still enough important characters to keep the drama rolling.
Film feels impeccably researched — especially Bernd Lepel’s reconstruction, in a Munich studio, of the warren-like Bunker, all gray, functional concrete bizarrely decorated with paintings, household furniture and occasional carpeting.
Pic avoids being plastered, docudrama-style, with distracting datelines, allowing the human drama to take center stage. Flashes of understated humor, such as the bunker’s occupants clandestinely lighting up out of sight of non-smoking veggie Hitler, add further character color.
Apart from a couple of miscalculated exceptions, pic eschews developing subplots of “ordinary” folk as emotional hooks into the larger drama. The historical characters are the drama here, and, as portrayed by German actors from an unsentimental, German perspective — think Josef Vilsmaier’s “Stalingrad” (1991) for emotional tone — this is the wellspring from which pic draws its slow-burning power.
Late in arriving but maintaining the dramatic momentum after Ganz’s exit, Corinna Harfouch is aces as Goebbels’ wife Magda, an icily elegant woman who, in one of the most chilling sequences, calmly poisons her six young children while Goebbels himself (Ulrich Matthes, ironically the anti-Nazi Catholic priest in Volker Schlondorff’s recent “The Ninth Day”) waits silently, almost dumbstruck, in a corridor outside. It’s the most commanding distaff perf in the picture, with Juliane Koehler (“Aimee & Jaguar,” “Nowhere in Africa”) having more screen time but much less to work with as party-girl lightweight Eva Braun.
Rest of the male leads ooze physical presence, with Heino Ferch a standout as loyal but smart architect Albert Speer and Michael Mendl as a tough, no-nonsense military commander. Among the large number of smaller supports Goetz Otto brings a businesslike dedication to the role of personal adjutant Guensche, entrusted with torching Hitler and Braun’s corpses.
Overground sequences of street-fighting, and senseless military discipline by Germans against Germans, are grittily staged and sonically arresting, with St. Petersburg locations doing convincing duty as Berlin. Rainer Klausmann’s largely handheld (though smooth) lensing goes for matte colors, dominated by grays and olive greens, with a natural-light look. Stephan Zacharias’ quiet score is supportive rather than descriptive, his serene, chordal music bringing an extra chill to the final murders and suicides.
A detailed postscript notes what happened to the main characters, with a surprising number living until fairly recently. (Traudl herself died in February, 2002, hours after the preem of “Blind Spot” at the Berlin fest.)