It doesn’t take a genius to work out the reasons behind Hitler’s evolution into a devil-horned historical caricature, but the galling truth is he was just a man–like you, like me. The incomprehensible evil of his actions has to be understood in relation to that fact, and by and large his depictions in cinema range from mockery to vilification, without any attempt to address his character head on. What marks this out as a different kind of movie is made clear in its disarming first scene, in which a bumbling, even charismatic Hitler is introduced to several candidates to be his new private secretary. No megalomaniacal speeches or crooked Hollywood grins, just an avuncular professional pottering around in his office.
By humanising him, something that didn’t come without controversy, the steady peeling back of his complex of neuroses and delusions, his fits of rage and his simmering hatreds, becomes all the more impactful. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s choice of this angle allows Bruno Ganz to steer clear of rehashing the versions of Hitler everyone has in their minds–a unique infamy which makes him an extremely difficult figure to portray. Ganz’s Hitler–trapped in the bunker with his co-conspirators as their world collapses–is diminished and suicidal, swinging between flights of fancy that the war could still be won, but ultimately abdicating responsibility for the horrors he’s unleashed.
Naturally, Downfall isn’t just about its most notorious son; it’s about the collapse of an empire, and the sense of apocalypse both inside and outside the bunker is keenly felt. The naturalistic dialogue and documentary style of the direction impose a sense of reality on what are extraordinary events. If there’s one criticism to be made however, it’s somewhere between the docudrama direction and the visuals. Realism is one thing, but it’s got the mundane look, limited camerawork, and tone, of a very good TV movie. As it isn’t a TV movie, we’ll have to forgive the cast and crew, because they’ve shown some huge balls in recreating this history. A-