In April 1945, as the Russians surround Berlin, Adolf Hitler is begged by his aides to leave the capital city. He declines: "I must force an outcome in Berlin, or face my downfall." Albert Speer concurs: "You must be on the stage when the curtain falls." With this air of fatalism, Hitler and his top associates retreat to their bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery to play out the last 10 days of the regime in Oliver Hirschbiegel's gripping docu-drama Downfall.
Speer's dramatic allusion is apt. The core conflict of Downfall is familiar: the story of a leader, driven mad by his own grand designs, who is holed up in isolation and confusion, while about him his closest advisers split into predictable groups -- the blindly committed, the weak, the self-interested and the betrayers.
Hirschbiegel based his film on Inside Hitler's Bunker, by Joachim Fest, as well as the memoirs of Traudl Junge, a young woman who was Hitler's secretary from 1942 through the last day. Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is depicted here as a passive observer, the naive cog we follow into the bunker. The real-life Junge is shown in a brief coda where, in a clip from the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, she acknowledges that her youth was no excuse for not recognizing what horrors she was part of.
Interspersed with snippets of war from the streets, Hirschbiegel's camera stays mostly underground, snaking through the narrow concrete halls and the cramped bare rooms illuminated with otherworldly blue light. The power flickers, and the roar of artillery continues unabated. Claustrophobic and tense, the bunker might as well be a stalled U-boat. Other scenes nimbly invoke the persistent delusion of victory and protocol even as the rafters fall: A marriage official dutifully inquires of the groom, Hitler, if he is of pure Ayran blood. "He is the Fuhrer," snaps an aide.
Hitler, as portrayed in a remarkable performance by Bruno Ganz, is small, stooped and prone to shuffling and twitching. Ganz's Hitler is often disconnected, even dazed, but once set off, an incredible physical power rears out of the bent frame: The hair flips, the spittle flies, the fists pound -- it is the fiery raving Hitler of the newsreels, and a chilling transformation.
When all the dramatis personae are top Nazis, we can't help but process them through the prism of contemporary history. Yet the film demonizes few (Goebbels remains a particularly cold fish) and manages to present figures whose actions prove compelling. Human beings simply behave in predictable ways -- be they as horrific as decisions made in war that send untold numbers to their deaths, or as silly as sneaking cigarettes -- so that their actions, even in the worst possible circumstances, are both familiar and riveting. In German, with subtitles.