Madness at the End

Oliver Hirschbiegel looks to eyewitnesses in Hitler’s final bunker days

Cultures often deal with their pasts, glorious or otherwise, with spectacles.

In ancient Rome, the battle of Actium was once recreated, ships and all, for a cheering audience.

In the new German movie, “Downfall,” the final 12 days of Hitler and his Third Reich are chronicled, also in a “spectacle” fashion, but not in a way meant to entertain, but rather to examine. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel recreates the internal madness of the people in the bunker, while outside the Red Army encircles Berlin, closing in on Hitler in house-to-house battles, with the city falling into chaos.

“Downfall” is based on two sources. One is Joachim Best’s book, “Inside Hitler’s Bunker” and the other is the personal account by Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, who also appeared in the documentary “Blind Spot,” two years ago, shortly before her death. While the Junge character opens and closes the film, it is difficult to see her as the figure that keeps it all together, as the director intended. What unifies the movie is instinct followed by many of the top Nazi officers, taking Hitler’s lead, to fall back on their fanaticism to comfort themselves as everything outside disintegrates.

Hirschbiegel goes to painstaking detail to show the disarray that was Berlin in April 1945. Whole city blocks are bombed out, defended by hapless, unarmed Germans. Meanwhile, inside the bunker, there’s good food and champagne to help Der Fuhrer celebrate his birthday, keeping up the facade that everything will work out. In the 12 days shown in “Downfall,” Hitler remains convinced that reinforcements are on their way to salvage the situation. Advisers and friends tell him to flee, but he refuses. Hitler shows no sympathy for the Germans outside, saying what’s happening is somehow their own fault, as he catalogues a wide array of enemies, most particularly, of course, the Jews.

Films about Nazi Germany during World War II have been plentiful lately, but what sets “Downfall” apart is that it is the most ambitious cinematic treatment of Hitler himself in the bunker during the final days since G.W. Pabst’s 1956 “Der Letste Akt” (“The Last Act”).

Hitler at first comes across almost as a pitiable character, until he starts ranting. In the bunker’s claustrophobia, we witness everyone’s reactions to Hitler—those acting oblivious, others incredulous at the denial, and some, like Goebbels and his wife, who are fanatical and “cannot imagine a world without National Socialism.” What they can imagine, however, is what will happen to them if the Allies catch them.

Hirschbiegel faithfully recreates the final days of the Third Reich and populates the screen with an excellent cast, led by Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler. Ganz studied a rare tape of Hitler in conversation, versus Hitler at the podium, and gives a textured performance, showing both Der Fuhrer as well as a beleaguered old man. But most of all, Ganz captures Hitler’s inability to deal with the realities of the war. Whenever someone disappears or surrenders, he bellows, “It’s the worst betrayal of all.” Juliane Kohler plays Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, faithful to the end.

Much of the movie tracks the eyewitness testimony of his secretary, Junge (played by Alexandra Maria Lara), who also remains loyal, taking down Hitler’s final political statement and his last will and testament. In many ways, Junge is a stand-in for the German people, sorting out the dilemma of fidelity versus their own personal salvation.

We also see 13-year-old Peter (Donevan Gunia) trying to defend Berlin with a rocket launcher, but eventually forced to realize resistance is futile. An SS doctor (played by Christian Berkel) wants to help the remaining Berliners as best he can, and yet finds himself bound to follow ridiculous orders.

The best performance is delivered by Corinna Harfouch, who plays Goebbels’ wife. She arrives with six of their children to wish “Uncle Hitler” a happy birthday in what appears to be the last safe place in Berlin. When their escape become impossible, this latter-day Medea poisons all six of her children in what is the most difficult portion of the film. As she forces a sleeping potion on her oldest daughter, the audience wriggles painfully with her.

Frau Goebbels’ sick devotion to duty is mirrored outside the bunker. Some Berliners prefer to get drunk and hold orgies, but others are punishing their fellow citizens for aiding the Russians by hanging them on lampposts, even as shells are blowing apart nearby buildings.

Hirschbiegel does a great job of capturing the confinement of the bunker and the bleakness that was Berlin in the final days. We rarely see any sunlight in this film, and the only optimistic moments are in the final scenes, before we see a clip of the real Traudl Junge from “Blind Spot.”

Hirschbiegel’s film provides compelling viewing, because despite knowing thoroughly how the story ends, we’re seeing things here that only eyewitnesses knew. “The Last Ten Days,” from 1973 and 1981’s “The Bunker” explored this story, but “Downfall” best captures the terror everyone must have felt being in close quarters with Hitler at the end. Only the sources material, in Blind Spot,” with Traudl Junge on screen for two hours telling us her story, gives us more of an undiluted account of what actually happened in that bunker. But as non-documentary “Hitler” movies go, “Downfall” is truly one of the best, leaving viewers awed.

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