Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Downfall (2004)

The list of victims of Hitler's regime is enormous.  Most people are probably aware of some of them: the six million Jews murdered in concentration camps, the progroms against homosexuals, the Allied soldiers, the families suffering through the Blitz, and so on.

This movie is about one group of victims who tend to be overlooked: the German people themselves.  Make no mistake, I don't mean that it attempts to put them on the same standing as the Jews (I'd be outraged if it did), and it does not attempt to deny their culpability in their own ... well, their own downfall.  There's a memorable scene in the film where Goebbels sneers 'The German people chose this.  They gave us the mandate, and now they're going to get their throats cut.'

But having accepted that the German people were culpable in the horrors that befell them, the film pulls no punches in depicting them.  Whether it be the 12 year old boys enlisting to fight, the old men executed for not taking up arms, or just the failure of anyone to do anything to stop Hitler's madness, the film does not shy away.  Nor does it flinch from showing the various ways in which the Fuhrer's entourage react to increasingly inevitable defeat.  Some respond with unflinching fanaticism, others with futile outrage at the impending disaster, and still others with bleak fatalism.  Importantly, these are all reactions to losing the war, not to waging it.  No-one gets ret-conned into a secret anti-war activist.  Like I said, there's no attempt to deny culpability.

This is a well made film on every front, albeit one that will not be to everyone's taste.  If nothing else, it's a 2.5 hour subtitled movie.  Honestly, I think it's a little too long at that run time: Hitler commits suicide around the 90 minute mark and without Bruno Ganz's mesmerising performance the film feels a little adrift.  So did the people in Hitler's circle, I am sure, but if your characters are bored you wouldn't illustrate that by boring the audience, would you?

And then of course there is the subject matter, which is pretty grim.  Lots of people prefer their films to be lighter than this one.  So it won't be for everyone.  But if you want some idea of what the last days in Berlin were like, based on the memories of someone who was there (one of Hitler's secretaries), then this is well worth your time.  It's a powerful if occasionally deeply uncomfortable movie to watch.

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