Depicting Hitler’s last days in his besieged Berlin bunker, DOWNFALL (2004) is a powerful character study not only of Hitler himself but the Nazi mentality in general. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though it may drag for some viewers due to its length and bleakness.
It was the movie that launched a thousand memes, as a scene depicting Hitler ranting over failure of one of his generals to break the siege turned up on YouTube again and again with fresh subtitles having Hitler complain about various setbacks in American politics, pop culture, and everyday life. Some of these are pretty amusing, but I avoided the movie because the last thing I needed was to watch Hitler mope around a bunker for 2-1/2 hours. I finally decided to give it a go and I’m glad I did, as the movie really has something to say.
The story is based on firsthand accounts from several people, notably Traudl Junge, a young woman chosen by Hitler to be his personal secretary in 1942. Starstruck, she is all too happy to serve the Fuhrer. Fast forward to 1945, Hitler’s birthday. The Soviets are shelling Berlin, and soon tanks are broaching the city. As the writing on the wall becomes clear, Hitler decides to go down with the ship instead of flee his capital, and the top cadre of the Nazi Party unravels between those who stay at his side to the end and others who flee like rats.
The film was controversial for its depiction of Hitler as, well, human. I had no problem with that, and by the end, I hated Hitler and everything he represents even more. Yes, the Nazis weren’t monsters, they were ordinary people who did monstrous things because of ideology and a yes-man echo chamber that created an alternate reality, and that’s even more terrifying and provides an even greater warning to us now. As the Soviets bring that alternate reality crashing down, we see what everybody is made of, and yup, they’re horrible.
Hitler comes across as the leader of a death cult–personally charming, believing he can change events simply by wishing it so, throwing followers under the bus whenever convenient, blaming everybody but himself, brainwashing kids to pointlessly fight and die, and ultimately killing himself and expecting everybody else to die with him. And like a cult, many of his followers are all too happy to die with him. All the Nazis in their stark uniforms, they look more like dangerous cult members wearing drab costumes than actual political and military leaders of a feared and aggressive nation. Even now at my age, I still expect the Nazis to at least be grand due to all the pageantry and discipline, but they’re just pathetic.
Though we’re shown several people who are somewhat sympathetic, such as Junge, a military doctor, and the general in charge of the city’s defense, they’re only sympathetic by omission of certain truths about them and contrast against those even more monstrous. Honestly, there’s not a single truly likeable character in the film. The only characters I was truly rooting for were the children, and seeing them follow the same fate as their parents was painful. Seeing most of these people go along with Hitler’s desire for the whole country to die, Hitler requiring old men and children to fight to the last, and the Nazi leaders having Bacchanalian parties while their subjects suffer a horrific struggle to survive–yeah, you kind of look forward to them exiting the world, and good riddance.
Overall, DOWNFALL is an excellent character study of Hitler and portrayal of the Nazis, warning about blindly following extremist ideologies, and a raw and believable account of Hitler’s last days.