I’ve long thought about trying my hand at writing a war movie. Other than the clear obstacle that I have absolutely no military experience whatsoever, I’ve alays been plagued by my desire to not write your typical, American military film. If I ever wrote a war movie, I wouldn’t want to write about the winning side, or, in the fashion of Saving Private Ryan, at least not one who achieved anything more than a Pyrrhic victory. War films about glorious victors are too self-congratulatory and celebratory. The notion of “We won; you lost,” permeates every scene and they generally fail to capture the hellish realities of war. And, perhaps, that’s why my two favorite World War II films come from the perspective of the soon-to-be damned.
Up until last night, I would have said 1981’s Das Boot was the best World War II movie ever made. Wolfgang Petersen’s classic examination of life on a German U-Boat at the end of World War II captures the reality of “War Is Hell” better than any film ever made, except perhaps Grave of the Fireflies. And it achieved that through avoid any glorification of war whatsoever. These men’s lives were miserable and full of death, and even when they made it back to Germany, death awaited them. It was one man’s deconstruction of a glorious myth of his own people’s past, and it remains one of the finest war films ever made. 2004’s Downfall takes an even more stark and controversial route than Das Boot by daring to humanize the final days of the Third Reich.
It is, in Germany, illegal to display most symbols of the Nazi party. Nationalist and hard-right political parties are illegal, and performing the Nazi salute is a prosecutable offense. German’s are sick, to this day, to their very soul by the horrors they committed in World War II, and what makes Downfall work so well is that, like The White Ribbon, it is both a cinematic excoriation of the darker side of German culture as well as an honest humanization of the men and women who oversaw some of the worst atrocities in human history. That the film dares offer a realistic and honest portrait of Adolf Hitler alone would have qualified it as mandatory World War II viewing, but the film is much more ambitious and far-sighted than that.
Based heavily on the testimony of Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Downfall is a painstakingly realized portrayal of the final week of the men in the Third Reich’s bunker in Berlin as Russian forces slowly but surely capture the city. Hitler (Wings of Desire‘s Bruno Ganz) lives in a schizophrenic state of absolute refusal to accept that his dreams shall not come to pass against sudden bouts of realistic acceptance and plans for his own imminent suicide with his mistress Eva Braun (Nowhere in Africa‘s Juliane Kohler). As Hitler’s stability dwindles, his top generals and brass, including Albert Speer, Heinrich Himler, and Josef Goebbels, are left fighting amongst themselves on whether to obey’s the Fuhrer’s orders and refuse surrender or to ignore Hitler and save their people from total destruction.
And as life in the bunker devolves into a daily race to see who Hitler accuses of being a traitor next (if for no other reason than not being able to follow his impossible demands), life above the bunker in the streets of Berlin is even worse. Goebbels has commanded battalions of children to serve as cannon fodder to slow the advance of the Red Army. Heinrich Himmler has removed all of the SS and most top government officials from the city leaving the remaining civilians to die of starvation and sickness. And what few doctors remain in the city are stretched threadbare amongst the surviving resistance. And, without fail, the Russians continue their march into the city itself.
Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler is one of the most remarkable and stunningly courageous performances in the history of the silver screen. Hitler is not the type of role any German actor would naturally gravitate towards, but Ganz brings him to life in a wrenchingly honest way. In a performance that can only be described as the exact opposite of his kind and sensitive angel Damiel in Wings of Desire, Ganz’s Hitler is by turns despotic, brutal, cruel, and unyielding. Yet, minutes later, he can be caring, gentle with women and children, despairing, and frightened. If any historical figure from the 1900s lends itself to over-the-top caricature, it’s Hitler, but even in his most explosive angry moments, Bruno Ganz keeps his characterization frighteningly realistic.
And Ganz is supported by an exceptional pool of talented German actors and actresses. Anyone who’s seen Nowhere in Africa knows how talented Juliane Kohler is, and her Eva Braun is exceptionally different from her suffering Jewish wife/mother. She’s a manic creature who wants to manufacture a joie de vivre in the bunker even when she knows she will die soon. Alexandra Maria Lara brings the secretary to life, and you sympathize with her suffering even though you know she works directly for one of the most evil men in human history. Other stellar supporting performances include Corinna Harfouch as Goebbel’s zealously loyal wife, Christian Berkel as a nazi doctor, and Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels himself.
When the movie was released in 2004, it was fairly controversial for its dogged refusal to not simply make its protagonist monstrous caricatures. Yes, we see how truly monstrous these men and women can be. Hitler asserts repeatedly that the German people don’t deserve to live after the war because they have failed him. Goebbel’s wife, Magda, poisons her children in their sleep rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Many of Hitler’s men scheme to depose him now that the war is clearly lost. But, at the same time, the movie touches on the small moments of humanity these comrades share before their downfall. Eva Braun gives Traudl her best fur coat. Hitler walks his dog and congratulates his best soldiers. Goebbels leads his children in German songs to entertain the soldiers and the Fuhrer.
The film never stops finding little moments like that. Though there is plenty of conventional warfare going on above the bunker (which is displayed in graphic detail), the movie’s most effective moments are in the character-building and day-to-day life at the end of a wannabe empire. This movie’s deliberate pacing may scare away more action-oriented war movie lovers, but for those who understand that the key to a successful war film (or any film to be honest) is character driven storytelling (so we’re invested in the outcome on screen), Downfall‘s dedication to character is a breath of fresh air.
At 110o words, I’m going to draw this review to a close because I promised my sister I would watch the Billy Wilder/Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina with her later. Also, I’m very, very hungry. It’s 4:30 and I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until 2:30 PM). If you’re looking for a World War II movie that breaks the mold, look no further than Downfall. After some contemplation, it replaces Das Boot as what I consider to be the best World War II film ever made, and it’s deserving of a wider audience than it’s had over the years.
Final Score: A