Bruno Ganz’s eerily astute incarnation of a declining Adolph Hitler is very much the centerpiece of Oliver Hirshbeigel’s Downfall, the heralded German production chronicling the last days of Hitler and Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. But this film has much more than a sharp performance—and a moderately controversial portrait—to recommend it.
Drawing on two books (Joachim Fest’s history of Hitler’s final days and Traudl Junge’s memoir of her youthful experiences as Hitler’s wartime stenographer), Hirshbiegel and writer-producer Bernd Eichinger have constructed a fascinating historical drama with a perhaps surprising range of characters. Striking portraits of key Nazi figures—Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, etc.—are distinctive parts of the mix, but this dramatic rendering of history gains quite a lot from the portrayal of three women in particular—Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun; Goebbels’ wife, Magda; and the young Traudl Junge herself.
Ganz’s performance—mildly stylized and consistently understated throughout—gives a credible account of a burnt-out authoritarian, both defeated and defiant as he stumbles against his own unacknowledged lunacy and drifts toward self-destruction. Ulrich Matthes (as Goebbels) and Heino Ferch (as Albert Speer) are at almost opposite ends of the film’s acting spectrum—the one a near-expressionist caricature and the other a deadpan realistic study—but both characterizations fall within the film’s trademark patterns of fanatical derangement variously intertwined with otherwise ordinary-looking behavior.
The key female characters are also studies in variously contrasted obliviousness, with Juliane Kohner’s giddily sybaritic Eva Braun book-ended against Corinna Farouch’s steely Medea-like Frau Goebbels. Alexandra Maria Lara is almost too much of a good thing as the relentlessly innocent Traudl Junge, whose first meeting with Hitler (in 1942) and subsequent flight from the Hitler bunker (in 1945) are the framing events of the film as a whole.
Lara’s portrayal of Junge, however, is itself framed by documentary passages from the real-life Junge (now deceased), who in a recent documentary entitled Blind Spot acknowledged the very fine line between the apparent innocence of her younger self and a willful and therefore dangerous naivetà. A key strength in the Hirshbiegel film’s patently non-sensationalistic approach to its subject emerges from this recurring sense of evil and innocence trapped in a poisonous embrace.