I thought I have responsibility to do it, because I am German. Kind of like a historical task. A task as a German and a task as a director to make it real.
— Oliver Hirschbiegel, “Making of Downfall“
This is the task of a lifetime, to play something so weird like Hitler. Mostly, they want you to do a parody. But here they wanted to do it very realistic.
— Bruno Ganz, “Making of Downfall“
“I’ve got the feeling that I should be angry with this child, this young and oblivious girl,” says Traudl Junge, “Or that I’m not allowed to forgive her for not seeing the nature of that monster, that she didn’t realize what she was doing. And mostly because I’ve gone so obliviously… But I couldn’t say no. Curiosity got the better of me. And I simply never thought that fate would take me somewhere I’d never really wanted to be. And yet, it’s very hard to forgive myself for doing it.” Hitler’s last secretary, Junge appears in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall in intriguing, difficult pieces. In the film’s opening and closing moments, she speaks to the camera in interview, looking back on her experience working for the Führer during his final days (this interview took place shortly before her death in February 2002). Her comments, however brief, suggest that she pondered her decision to take the job until her own last hours.
Junge also appears in the film — which is based on two books, Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest and Junge’s own Until the Final Hour — as her fictionalized, 22-year-old self, acted by Alexandra Maria Lara. In this incarnation, Traudl serves in part as your entry into Hitler’s “inner circle,” a wide-eyed girl among others, waiting to meet with Hitler (Bruno Ganz) in November, 1942, in East Prussia. He stands before a lineup of girls, apologizing for the late hour: “In war,” he avers, “We aren’t always masters of our own time.” Traudl’s face goes pale when he selects her and leads her into his office, where he has her sit before a typewriter, still in her trenchcoat, to take his dictation. She makes so many mistakes right off that her new boss, leaning over her shoulder, suggests that they “try it again.”
From here Downfall cuts forward two and a half years, to 20 April 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, as the end of the Third Reich is inevitable. As Hitler and his circle decide how best to end it, arrange for their own deaths or suicides, and the destruction of records and weapons. As director Oliver Hirschbiegel says repeatedly during his thoughtful DVD commentary (recorded in English and German, your choice which track), the “general approach of our movie” was to shows what happened and to show the Nazis as human beings. “Everything you see here,” he says, “is derived from the accounts, from descriptions of people who were part of that.”
That is, the sets replicate the bunker’s concrete walls, Hitler’s hands shake with “a strange sickness” (Parkinson’s disease, not diagnosed until the 1950s), and officers (military and SS) stand — they do not sit with the Führer in the room — while they exchange worried looks over their leader’s alternate fuming and fretting (“In a war like this, there are no civilians”). Explaining to Albert Speer his frustration and plans, he says, “If the war is lost, it’s immaterial to us if the people perish too… They have proved themselves weak and it is a law of nature.” This even as his minions take note of his increasing lapses (“The Führer has lost all sense of reality. He moves divisions that exist only on his map”).
As Hirschbiegel says repeatedly in the commentary and the making-of featurette (which also features interviews with cast and crew members), the film means to be accurate concerning a series of events nearly lost to myth. Such attention to detail, however, doesn’t preclude the occasional lyrical image — as when soldiers rush to burn documents and papers swirl like snow behind them, or when children crowd together in the frame, pledging their loyalty to the cause, a cause they can’t begin to comprehend.
Comprehension, knowledge, and responsibility are, no surprise, pressing themes for Downfall, though it resists demonizing individual characters. Even Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), so cadaverous and ghastly in affect and appearance, shows vulnerability when he realizes he must make a final testimony for Traudl to record, and she informs him that first she must complete Hitler’s. The exchange of close-ups between them, essentially wordless, shows his dark understanding and her naïve, earnest effort to stay focused, and at last, her fear incited by the tears in his eyes.
In his commentary, Hirschbiegel notes each character as he or she appears, lauding performances and underlining the difficulty of the actors’ tasks, to play these legendary monsters as people with motives and anxieties: while Traudl is “not a strong character, she’s intelligent but she’s naïve,” Schenck (Christian Berkel) is a medical doctor “involved in research about food supplies,” eventually horrified by the sight of doctors amputating limbs in a makeshift emergency room; Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen), “one of the worst people in the SS”; Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), who pauses with Hitler to admire a model city square that they would never see erected: Hirschbiegel explains, “He was a brilliant architect, I must say, but he was ruthless; he knew exactly what was going on, even though he said later that he didn’t.”
Each of these figures appears briefly, sometimes just in bits of scenes, during Downfall‘s 155 minutes, which means that some details have to go a long way. Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), Hirschbiegel observes, “had this strange happiness, that strange gayness, trying to cheer people up, knowing she would die there at the side of the Führer” (the director also notes that the parties at the time turned into orgies, “where everyone was completely drunk,” a series of final remarkable excesses).
In contrast, the film shows a storeroom piled with bodies, as well as the amputations sequence, bloody, gory images that, even though the film takes place when “most of the concentration camps have been freed already,” remind viewers of the Nazis’ brutality. For, Hirschbiegel says, “This is what this movie is about: even though they were responsible for the most unimaginable horror, they were human beings. They were believing in something. And I think it’s very important to understand that they were human beings. Because if we cast these people out, if we do not treat them as human beings, we will repeat something that the Nazis did with the Jews.”
As to the characterization of Hitler himself, the director can’t even find words to describe his admiration for Ganz (“He doesn’t need any comment”), and says this of the Führer: “He had certain gifts that elevated him… That, combined with the lowest instincts, might be an explanation as to how this man got so far.” He charmed, wheedled, and moved people, he manipulated and abused them, and he maintained a secret relationship for years with Eva. During a short-lived respite, as she and Traudl smoke cigarettes, Eva admits, “He’s changed so much; he only talks about dogs and vegetarian meals. I really hate [Hitler’s beloved German Shepherd] Blondi. Sometimes I kick her secretly, then Adolf wonders about her behavior.” A couple of scenes later, he’s advising Eva and Traudl how best to commit suicide: “If you want to be certain, shoot the gun into your mouth. Your skull will explode. You don’t notice a thing. You die immediately.”
Eva and Hitler kill themselves off-screen, the precise steps they took unseen because, the director says, “the worst thing that could happen to this most horrible person of history is that he become a myth” (arguably, he is a myth already). And SS officer Grawitz (Christian Hoening) sits at a dinner table with his family, setting off a pair of hand grenades as the kids and his wife chat and smile, unaware that they’re about to be blown out their apartment window in seconds.
Still, the film’s most prolonged, frankly gruesome murder sequence involves Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) and her young children. Believing that “If the idea of National Socialism dies, there is no future,” she determines they must die (remarkably, the director adds, documentary footage of these children shows them to be “gay, happy, loved children”). Of the oldest daughter, Hirschbiegel says, “They found major bruises and blue spots all over her body, so she must have really fought.” As Helga Goebbels (Aline Sokar) so bravely resists her implacable, fully committed mother — her father remained outside the room, unable to participate — the costs of the Third Reich’s contortions of belief and desire become clear and utterly murky at once. Yes, these participants are/were human beings, and yes, the “realistic” depiction underlines that point of representation. And yet, whatever drives them remains elusive. No film, no matter the accuracy or the detail, can imagine it.