Downfall (2004)

Not rated. Our ratings: V-4 ; L-3 ; S/N-1

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
Psalm 8:3-6

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, a nd do not call upon the LORD?
There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge.
O that deliverance for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, Israel shall be glad.
Psalm 14

Do not fret because of evildoers.
Do not envy the wicked; for the evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out.
Proverbs 24:19-20

Downfall

This powerful, and controversial, film stars Bruno Ganz in a role that is the complete opposite of that of the gentle angel he played in the spiritual film Wings of Desire. The only angel that Adolph Hitler brings to mind is Lucifer, the fallen “Bearer of Light.” Actually this is an apt comparison, as we see in his unrepentant rantings and ravings that even at the end the dictator still regarded himself as bringing “light” to the German people. As he receives report after report and clings to the impossible hope that his armies will be able to counter-attack the Russian armies that have encircled Berlin, not once do we ever hear a word in which he assumes the blame for the horrors that have descended upon his city and its people. No, it is the cowardice of his generals and of the people themselves—they are unworthy of him, and so deserve the destruction raining upon them. Nor does he express any regret—at one time he even expresses pride that he “confronted the Jews” and “removed the poison from the land,” an abominable euphemism!

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writer Bernd Eichinger have gifted us with a searing film that informs us of the banal details of the last days of Hitler and his loyal inner circle, but it cannot make us understand how such a man came to such unrepentant evil. The Psalmist looked at the magnificent beauty of the heavens and asked, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” He might ask the same question, but with a different twist, were he to gaze upon the ruins and the senseless deaths of young and old Berliners. They may have been “made…a little lower than God,” but by choosing to turn away from God, they have become even lower than beats and demons. Evil remains a mystery, no matter how many Holocaust or Hitler films we take in.

The film is based on two books— Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest; and Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller. (The latter resulted in the documentary film Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, which is available on DVD—see the short review later in this issue.) Alexandra Maria Lara portrays Traudl Junge: she is 22 when she is transported along with nine other young women to Hitler’s bunker in Bavaria. He is looking for another, personal, secretary, an important stipulation being that she be young and pretty. Traudl wins the position, and thereby becomes an eyewitness to the trying events of the next three years.

Hitler moves to his bunker in Berlin, where he assures everyone that the approaching Russians will soon be defeated, that he has plans to summon his armies (some of which have been destroyed) to encircle them. He also has issued secret orders that everything be utterly destroyed so that the enemy will be able to use nothing. When various underlings try to dissuade him or ask about what will happen to the civilians, Hitler goes into a rage, declaring that they do not deserve to live. Even more chilling, later on, is his dinner table comments about love and compassion being the talk of weak priests, that “compassion is sin,” and “against nature.”

Also chilling is the mindless fanaticism that Hitler has engendered in so many of his followers. Although Traudl remains apolitical, Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) is, if possible, an even more fanatical Nazi than her husband. Declaring that her six children have no future in a world without National Socialism, she makes her children drink a bitter-tasting sleeping potion. The oldest, Helga, about ten, sensing that all is not well, tries to resist, but with the help of the doctor, Magda forces her daughter to swallow the liquid—and then sneaks into their bedroom later and inserts a cyanide capsule into their mouths. The little crunching sound made by their jaws is terrible to hear! And how their father Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) can stand outside their room and allow his wife to murder them is beyond my comprehension—though it probably should come as no surprise, as he was one of the architects that planned the extermination of six million Jews and millions of other “misfits.”

Most of the film takes place deep underground in the bunker, but we come out for the occasional foray by Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) and Traudl for a smoke (banned by Hitler in the bunker). We also see the terrible things happening to the civilians and the young defenders as the Russians close in on the dying city. Grade school children are pressed into service, and in one scene Hitler awards medals to several of them for their bravery in facing and destroying Russian tanks. Later, when Goebbels is informed that his ill-trained, ill-equipped child-soldiers are being slaughtered, he coldly says that it does not matter.

I could go on about other incidents that reveal how Hitler and his minions have lost touch with reality (such as Himmler (Ulrich Noethen), believing that he can negotiate a separate cease fire with General Eisenhower, wonders how he should salute the American!). I should add that there also are a few occasions of humaneness, such as Dr. Schenck (Christian Berkel), a teaching doctor, who refuses to flee to safety but elects to stay and help operate on the patients in their besieged hospital. And I had to admire the courage of Hitler’s master architect Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) when he returns to Berlin for one last meeting with Hitler to tell him that he had been disobeying his master’s order to destroy all the public buildings. (The Fuehrer refuses to shake hands as they part.) There is also a subplot of the survival of the child-soldier Peter, who later links up with Traudl Junge as they attempt to flee Berlin.

This is an excellent film that in no way glorifies Hitler, but it does take the road that he is a human being—we see him as a kind and courteous employer who loves children—and not some supernatural monster. I believe this is important, to remind us to what depths we are capable of descending when we turn our backs upon God. The thought often arose, as I watched the scenes of terrible suffering of the German people, that their enthusiastic support of their maniacal leader had led to this moment, and that therefore they deserved their fate. Not a good or gracious thought, and yet this helped me understand more those vengeance passages in the Psalms and some of the prophets. This is not a film you will enjoy, but it is one that you should see.