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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #245: Downfall

How do you make a movie about Adolph Hitler without making him too human? Answer: you can’t, which was the point of Oliver Hirschbiegel 2004 film The Fall. It depicts the final days of Hitler as the Allies and the Soviets are advancing upon Berlin and the most hated man in history sees his empire crumble. Based partially on the book of one of Hitler’s secretary it depicts him not just as mad man but as a human being like everyone else, which is all the more frightening when you think about it.

When this particular movie came out I was not too eager to see it like most people. A movie about Hitler, even his last days, is no popcorn movie. Inglourious Basterds this is not. But after being encouraged by a few people who had seen it and after it got its fair share of acclaim during the 2005 award season, I decided to rent it during my first year at the University of Sherbrooke. Clearly I was not the only young person who watched it since over the years the scene where Hitler loses it and goes into a furious tirade at his underlings has been endlessly parodied. Downfall parodies have become such a staple of pop culture that they are probably even more known than the movie itself. If detractors were worried Downfall would end up making Hitler a sympathetic figure, no worries: it ended up making him a figure of ridicule.

Hitler’s secretary Taudl Junge (Alexandra Maria) opens the film in 1942 as one of several women vying for the job, not sure what to anticipate before meeting the man (Bruno Ganz). Seemingly knowing he would have that effect on the candidates, Hitler is quite nice to her during the interview and tries to put her at ease. He has every reason to be jovial as everything is going well for him. Cut to 1945 and the mood has changed radically. The Red Army is bearing down on Berlin and is firing artillery shots, much to Hitler’s displeasure.

The ship is sinking and everyone knows it, but Hitler is resolute refusing to surrender. There is a division in the city between those who are willing to die for their leader’s ideology and those who realize it might be time to wave the white flag. Members of the Hitler Youth stay to build defences, while commander Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) decides to go behind his back and negotiate with the Allies.

As the bad news of the war pile on Hitler becomes more and more enraged blaming those under him for the upcoming defeat. Once he accepts the inevitable the story becomes more claustrophobic as Hitler and those closest to him retreat to his bunker where he would transmit his final orders and ultimately take his own life. With his long-time companion Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), his devout follower Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Mattes) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch), he wishes to die on his own terms believing to his last breath he was right. One of the most insane and evil acts ever depicted on screen is Magda Goebbels poisoning her own children before shuffling off her own mortal coil. If there is a hell, there was a front seat waiting for her.

In the midst of the lunacy secretary Traudl Junge bears witness. It must have been quite a thing to be in the presence of one of the most evil men in history and stay by his side until the end. Before it all came crashing down, did she ever wonder if he was wrong or did she fall for his charisma just like so many people did?

This is not a pleasant movie to watch, but it is definitely an important one. Nazis are rightfully portrayed as the worst villains of the 20th century, but Downfall shows it was not all black and white. Some were diehard believers willing to die with Hitler, some realized he had gone mad, and many in Berlin were stuck in the crossfire because of his delusions. His actions must never be forgotten so they can hopefully never be repeated.

Thanks to the Internet, which seemingly keeps a record of everything, the image of his madness is going to stick around for a long time. 


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