Review by © Jane Freebury
The face of actor Bruno Ganz, his gentle, impish features transformed by the intensity of performance in this portrayal of one of the monsters of history, is unforgettable. Bruno Ganz who was the gastronome and lover in Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, and the beneficent angel hovering above Berlin in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, does Adolph Hitler brilliantly.
It’s an extraordinary performance and it’s also a brave one, to show the man as human like the rest of us, not incapable of affection nor of choosing a new secretary who’s pretty rather than skilled, and not the raving loon of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Yet in delivering a portrait of Hitler as recognizably human rather than a caricature of evil, the film has been controversial at home in Germany.
Some of the criticism has been from none other than director Wenders, who has expressed the surprising view that Downfall lacks a strong moral position on Hitler. But it’s not the villains with cloven hooves and tail, or disfigurement like Richard III that are the most dangerous ones, it’s the seductive ones that have the capacity for inspiring blind faith in millions of others, like the fanatic Magda Goebbels who couldn’t bear to see her six children live in a world without National Socialism.
It’s a little disappointing that director Oliver Hirschbiegel, a television director of good repute, has been so literal in his approach. However this film’s production, undertaking the re-enactment of the last days of Hitler’s regime as it took place in his bunker system under Berlin would have required grim determination in itself. When we occasionally step out for air above ground to walk the dog with Eva Braun or visit the band of children who are in the last line of defence, it’s an infernal wasteland of walking dead.
Direct mention of the Nazi past was long repressed in German cinema, though this began to change in the 1970s with films from Wenders, Sanders-Brahms and others. But since The Great Distator, conceived and filmed in 1939 while Neville Chamberlain was still making up his mind, there’s been little besides a 1955 film by Pabst. In Downfall, Hitler is centre-stage and the secretary on whose book this is partly based is interviewed, delivering a coda that offers responsibility for the cataclysm of war.