It is late April, 1945. In the waning days of the Third Reich, as Russian tanks roll into Berlin and the steady thump-thump of artillery shells grows closer, a German commander answers his phone.
It's Adolf Hitler's office.
"Oh," the commander says.
He puts down the phone.
"I'm to be shot," he says.
"What for?" a soldier asks.
"For moving my command post away from the enemy."
"That's not a bad idea."
Downfall, a meticulously detailed account of the final flailing days of Hitler and his inner circle, asks something that comes queasily close to sympathy for the devil. The film is often painful for a host of reasons but the one that strikes you immediately is how it refuses to make the Nazis cartoons, which would have been easier to handle - which has been easier to handle. Nazis have been go-to villains in the movies for so many decades now that at times they start to seem more like a pile of cliches than the barbaric reality they were.
Hitler is played by Bruno Ganz, an actor normally known for his melancholy streak (and best remembered as the angel in Wings of Desire). We watch Hitler eat cheese ravioli; he was a vegetarian. He hires a secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), whose memoir gave us some of these details (as did Blind Spot, the 2002 documentary about her life). Hitler asks her to take a memo, gently reminds her not to worry about mistakes: "You'll never make as many as I do."
So Hitler was a bad typist.
Downfall spends a great deal of time winding through that underground bunker; it has a day-in-the-life restlessness. There's Heinrich Himmler, and there's Albert Speer, the architect whose suit has nary a wrinkle. That woman dancing on the table, trying to ignore the sound of guns outside? That's Hitler's companion Eva Braun. All this is fascinating but not insightful, and the film is always gripping despite the sense that it's an insufficient response to monstrous acts.
Then again, what would be?
Downfall is a victim of its subject. Directed by the German Oliver Hirschbiegel, using a handful of memoirs as source material, the focus is not on understanding what made a man become a Hitler but the mundane details of that man. Our fear with this is if we stand too close, if we better understand him - will we begin to feel something for him?
A large-scale epic (and a nominee for the best foreign-language picture Oscar), Downfall asks hard questions. But are they the right questions? This Hitler is stooped like a troll. His hand shakes behind his back. His officers roll out maps showing the Russians have them encircled. Hitler demands counterstrikes from divisions that no longer exist. One by one, Himmler, Speer, and the others, abandon him.
Everyone is disloyal to Hitler.
I'm not being flip: Downfall takes such a dispassionate, obsessive tack, you understand why Mel Brooks had to write "Springtime for Hitler." The film borders on black comedy, and worse, naivet. Himmler - pondering a surrender his superiors refuse - asks "Should I give Eisenhower the Nazi salute or shake his hand?" Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, entertain the sinking ship with their children, impossibly perky Aryan youth who could audition for The Sound of Music. Downfall is wise enough to observe these loyalists - the pigtailed girl in the street, the officer who remains to the end, the "good" doctor who, we can't help notice, wears a Nazi uniform. It's also shallow enough to miss the point: Why do so many people mistake insanity for strength, even as the deck chairs are being arranged all around them?
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org