Downfall (15)

History: in all its squalid, drab, murderous detail
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Set in April 1945, over the last 11 days in the Nazi High Command's Berlin bunker, the new German film Downfall has been widely discussed as a portrait of Hitler in decline, but that's only part of the story. Certainly, the film's mesmerising centrepiece is Bruno Ganz's portrayal of a scared, decrepit Führer, confused, trembling and in the grip of a condition that afflicted so many of his entourage: if the word wasn't so anachronistic, you'd have to call it "denial". To the last, as he stares annihilation in the face, he's shuffling imaginary tank divisions around the map, dreaming of decisive pincer movements. Albert Speer urges him, "You must be on stage when the curtain falls" - the rhetoric resounds with cheap melodrama - but in fact the central actor of Downfall makes his exit a good half hour before the end. Hitler and Eva Braun, newlyweds and suicides in quick succession, are last seen as two blanket-covered bodies burning in a pit; it's typical of the film's bitter realism that it is made

Set in April 1945, over the last 11 days in the Nazi High Command's Berlin bunker, the new German film Downfall has been widely discussed as a portrait of Hitler in decline, but that's only part of the story. Certainly, the film's mesmerising centrepiece is Bruno Ganz's portrayal of a scared, decrepit Führer, confused, trembling and in the grip of a condition that afflicted so many of his entourage: if the word wasn't so anachronistic, you'd have to call it "denial". To the last, as he stares annihilation in the face, he's shuffling imaginary tank divisions around the map, dreaming of decisive pincer movements. Albert Speer urges him, "You must be on stage when the curtain falls" - the rhetoric resounds with cheap melodrama - but in fact the central actor of Downfall makes his exit a good half hour before the end. Hitler and Eva Braun, newlyweds and suicides in quick succession, are last seen as two blanket-covered bodies burning in a pit; it's typical of the film's bitter realism that it is made abundantly clear that this ignoble pyre used up quantities of paraffin urgently needed elsewhere.

By the end, there's an almost derisory casualness to the film's spate of suicides: two officers calmly stamp out their cigarettes, close a door, and we hear gunshots. Perhaps the most enduring impression Downfall conveys is of an endemic irresponsibility, of a nation being left to fend for itself, of the Nazi leaders' contempt for their own people. Berlin, as the Russians close in, is abandoned: earnest little squads of 12-year-olds are left to defend the city, or play at defending it. Hospitals are stripped, the wounded left to the mercies of a few remaining doctors: in a discreetly horrifying scene, a crowd of silently terrified old women are discovered, left to await their deaths in a basement. Meanwhile, Hitler rasps, "I feel no sympathy. The German people chose their fate."

One figure embodies a nation that deludedly signed up for perdition: the film is framed through the figure of Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), recently subject of the documentary Blind Spot, who bookends Downfall musing on her youthful inability to understand the nature of her complicity. Traudl's presence as an ingenue witness gives the film a quasi-documentary plausibility, and makes it more tolerable viewing than it might otherwise have been: it's some kind of relief to sense that there is one person in this crowd who's halfway human, halfway sane - or who, at least, would live to question her own humanity later.

At moments, however, the ingenue card is overplayed - notably at an impromptu dance party held by Eva Braun, played by Juliane Köhler as a vacant, robotically grinning cheerleader. Traudl looks in tears around the most joyless soirée since the Masque of the Red Death and comments, redundantly, "It's all so unreal" - one of the few glaring flaws in writer-producer Bernd Eichinger's otherwise sober script. And at the start, in what could be construed as a cheap shot, the film uses Traudl to wrong-foot us, showing us Hitler through the eyes of an impressionable job interviewee: a courteous, kindly-eyed dog lover, sweetly indulgent with her bad typing.

It's a sign of the film's great seriousness - if not always its dramatic effectiveness - that it gives us a tremendous amount of information to absorb. But the moments that hit hardest are the grimly intimate ones: notably, the scene in which Magda Goebbels calmly administers cyanide to her children, who not long before have been excitably giggling at the feet of their beloved "Uncle Hitler". The scene is all the harder to watch given the severe containment of Corinna Harfouch' s performance - as David Thomson put it last week, a riveting portrayal of "ordinary madness". The incident is central to the film not just in its emotional effect, but because it illustrates the film's theme: tyranny as an extreme form of parental abuse.

Director Hirschbiegel hits a difficult note between concrete realism and the nightmare of desperation: Downfall tangibly conveys a sense of the bunker as a self-made prison, a cramped warren. We sense its dusty airlessness, its drably functional nature - one key scene takes place in a grey locker room, while Hitler's marriage to Eva Braun is a dourly clerical little episode.

As ambitious and monolithic an undertaking as Downfall is, there's nothing remotely grandiose or operatic about it. It may, as some have complained, "humanise" Hitler, in the sense that it shows a pathetic, despicable man rather than a mythical ogre, but in no way can such humanising be seen as a step towards excusing or glorifying. Where most films about history and leadership concern themselves with the corridors of power, Hirschbiegel and Eichinger show us the corridors of impotence, at their most claustrophobically squalid.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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