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What was it like to be with Hitler near the end, in the underground bunker as the Soviets rained bombs on Berlin?   This German film by Oliver Hirschbiegel takes us there through the eyes of the young secretary he had retained three years earlier, Traudl Junge.   Bernd Eichinger’s script is based largely on the memoirs of this woman, who was manifestly not evil and in fact rather apolitical.  

Bruno Ganz is superlative in a performance that brings Hitler down to scale.   Here is a beaten man, a man for whom objective events are manifestly not going his way.   He spews torrents of frothing vitriol on his advisers who report military defeats, but he is kind to Junge, even affable.   It is this portrayal of Hitler’s human side that has made “Downfall” controversial.

So what is the point of showing us that this man -- who caused unquantifiable pain and suffering and death, who robbed us of so much –  that this man loved his dog Blondi, for example?   (Although we learn that Eva Bruan used to kick Blondi when Hitler wasn’t looking).   The point is that reality is never black and white, that even a monster has shades of gray.   I’ve often thought that a good film cannot –  indeed, must not –  judge its characters.   It can only present them as they are.   I suppose that ‘Downfall’ must be the ultimate test of that theory.   It is a very delicate tightrope that this film walks and it’s due to its consummate intelligence that it never missteps.    

There is a shattering scene at the end, footage of an elderly Junge being interviewed a few years back (she died in 2002).   She says (and I paraphrase): it’s not good enough to say that I was young, that I wasn’t aware of what was going on (a reference to the genocide).   I could have known if I’d wanted to.  

This film is a monumental act of respect –  for the complexities of reality and, by extension, for us as an audience.   It is also superlative cinema, with bravura editing and direction and a roving camera that is constantly investigating the claustrophobic corridors of the bunker.   A word should also be said about the key role of sound here, the way the sound of the Soviet bombs is rendered into a constant, almost physical presence.  

This is the first truly great film I’ve seen this year.   Essential viewing.  

- Apr 1, 2005  


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