One of the Best Foreign Film nominees at the 2004 Academy Awards was Germanyís Downfall. This superb look at Hitlerís final days in power Ė as seen through the eyes of his personal secretary Ė is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Foreign language films are often difficult to see if you live outside a major city. Perhaps the best thing about the home video revolution is that it allows movies of all kinds to find an appreciative audience. Hopefully, Downfall will be discovered on DVD; it is truly one worth seeking out.
The movie begins in 1942. Hitler (Bruno Ganz) is looking for a secretary and arranges for several women to be interviewed in the middle of the night. He selects Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), who is thrilled to be working for such a powerful leader. Then the film jumps ahead three years. The Russians are invading Berlin, and it is apparent that the Third Reich is about to fall. Hitler takes to his bunker and prepares for the worst. Those around him have different feelings about this plan. Some urge him to flee Berlin so that he can perhaps regroup and continue to lead; others join him in the bunker, believing that it is better to commit suicide than to be taken by the enemy.
Downfall covers the final ten days of Hitlerís life, but does not end with his suicide. The final half hour shows what happens to Traudl, who has watched in horror from inside the bunker. Initially, she takes the job under the impression that Hitler is essentially a noble leader. There is a youthful naivety on her part, although much of that begins to crack as she witnesses various events transpiring around her. Traudl is confused by those who do not remain loyal to Hitler, yet also confused by the fact that so many are willing to hole up in the bunker and die with him. Even more surprising to her are the seeming mood swings Hitler has. During casual one-on-one contact, he is considerate and caring. However, he flies into rages when he feels anyone has betrayed him. Reconciling the two sides of Hitlerís behavior is difficult for Traudl, only adding to her uncertainty. It is only after escaping from the bunker (and from Berlin) that she is able to put all the pieces together. The real Traudl Junge is interviewed at the beginning and end of Downfall; she confesses not really knowing the heinousness of Hitlerís acts and says she was horrified to finally realize what he had done.
A lot of movies have been made about Adolf Hitler, but this is certainly one of the best. Bruno Ganz gives a brilliant performance, showing us a man who has come unhinged. These are the last days of the Third Reich; its demise is imminent. Hitler seems singularly unable to accept this fact. One minute he will go into denial, insisting that he has troops ready to launch a swift and devastating defense; the next minute, he will be counseling someone on the correct way of committing suicide. Ganz disappears inside the character, giving us a Hitler who knew the inevitable was coming but could only occasionally accept it.
Alexandra Maria Lara is also excellent as Traudl. We experience the story from her perspective. Slowly she begins to realize that staying inside that bunker is a death sentence. Hitler and some of the others have come there to die. The actress very effectively portrays Traudlís confusion and gradual awakening to the direness of the situation. In one chilling scene, she encounters the six children of Joseph and Magda Goebbels. She already knows that the parents are planning to commit suicide, so when she sees the kids, a very scary light bulb goes on over her head Ė and ours.
One of the things that is most intriguing about Downfall is its portrayal of the very end of the Third Reich from a human point of view. In one chilling scene, Magda Goebbels slips into the room where her children are sleeping. She places a small capsule of poison into each childís mouth, then pushes their jaws shut to break the capsules. Quietly and delicately, she kisses them before pulling the sheets up over their heads. Magda does not show the kind of grief we would expect. She mourns more for the loss of National Socialism than for her own children. Quite simply, she does not think they should live in a world without it. There is also power in the scene where Hitler and Eva Braun Ė who have just been married Ė kill themselves. As their bodies are removed from the bunker, Traudl (and some of the SS officers) watch in horror as they come to a single conclusion: the end is here.
Of course, the Third Reich was an evil institution that committed unspeakable atrocities upon the Jewish people. No one mourns for Adolf Hitler, that much is certain. Downfall certainly doesnít, but it does show the psychology that goes on when a leader and his followers fall from power. The rest of the world rightly rejoiced the fall of the Third Reich, but for the people involved it was the literal crumbling of their world. The film does not ask us to feel sorry for them; it simply shows us what it must have been like to be in that bunker during the final days when everyone knew their time was running out.
Downfall is presented on DVD in its original widescreen format with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The subtitles are clear and readable at all times, and they never detract from the images on screen. Bonus features include cast and crew interviews, a making-of documentary, and audio commentary from director Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Historical dramas come in all shapes and sizes, but Downfall is one of the best Iíve seen in recent years. Be sure to look for it wherever you rent or purchase DVDs.
( 1/2 out of four)
Downfall is rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and some nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 36 minutes.
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