March 18, 2005


Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel Starring Bruno Ganz

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The legacy of Adolf Hitler still elicits morbid fascination half a century later, as people continue to grapple with the magnitude of atrocities committed under his rule. It is the source of thousands of published accounts, and also serves as basis for several films - including ones by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and Aleksandr Sokurov. Das Experiment director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall claims to be Germany's first kassenschlager on the subject, but this tediously accurate endeavour doesn't shed any new light on this unfathomable madness that eclipsed basic humanity.

Partly based on Traudl Junge's memoir, the film is virtually déjà vu for those who've seen Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary. Many of the same recollections by Führersekretärin Junge in the 2003 documentary also manifest themselves as re-enactments in Hirschbiegel's film. The story commences in 1942 with 22-year-old Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) taking a stenographic test before Hitler (Bruno Ganz), and ends in 1945 as she makes her way past Red Army troops following the Third Reich's surrender. While it is meticulously detailed in its portrayal of her experience, the film lacks the nuance and perspective that Junge herself supplied during the Blind Spot interviews.

Downfall scatters its narrative among numerous other historical figures and fictional characters. Naively patriotic teen Peter (Donevan Gunia) defies his father and joins the Hitler Youth in street warfare. A cheerleading Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler of Nowhere in Africa) gathers people in the bunker for a dance party. Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) plans to kill her own children to save them from growing up in a world without National Socialism. Operating chiefly in two divergent modes, Ganz's twitchy Hitler alternately rants paranoid edicts like a mad demagogue or fatalistically laments unfinished grand plans. Although the film shows his relatively gentler private side, Hitler still seems like a caricature here - unlike in Menno Meyjes' Max, which broke ground with its speculative psychoanalysis of Hitler's motivations.

Besides its episodic chamber pieces, Downfall lacks tangible narrative structure and relatable characters. The various vignettes are of interest, but they don't amount to anything significant. With only a brief shot showing a pile of corpses, the film seems to address massacre and anti-Semitism merely in passing. This Moralität primarily cautions on the absurdity of brainwashed Germans' foolhardy trust in a maniacal despot, and the regime's blitzkrieg against its own people to make them pay for failing to defend their glorious Vaterland.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.