Downfall (2004) (R)

The power to "Downfall" isn't evident in its first scene, which somehow comes across as a little bit like an SNL skit. Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) arrives in the dead of the night in 1942 to apply for the position of Hitler's personal secretary. Obviously a little frightened and flustered by the man's reputation, she is picked up by Hitler (Bruno Ganz, in an iconic role) and reassured by his demeanor.
Two and a half years later, Berlin is under attack.
This odd and very realistic way of shooting makes the narrative a bit stand-off-ish, to the point where we're not sure if we are supposed to laugh or cry. The emotions are kept at bay for most of the picture, letting us see the most notorious monsters in history as simple human beings...which they were.
You could criticize the picture for being too pretentious or too anti-this or pro-that; but the fact is that "Downfall" was the first conventional narrative about Adolf Hitler to come from Germany. To say that respect for the man still lived in the mind of the German people is preposterous, director Oliver Hirschbiegel proves that in the first few scenes.
Based in part of the personal story of Traudl Junge (the film opens to an interview with the real-life Frau Junge), "Downfall" is entirely about the last few days, hours, and minutes of the rule of Adolf Hitler. We see all sides of the argument, those who want desperately to be loyal to their leader, those who feel that self preservation is more important, and those who have begun to disagree with the Führer. 
Hitler has his many quirks, including twitches and what may only be considered as drastic mood swings. Bruno Ganz does a terrific job here, though he is not the heart and soul of the movie. It takes a brave man to tackle such a historical figure and play him with just the right amount of humanity and just the right amount of insanity.
As moody as Hitler is, his wife, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) is even more charismatic. She swings violently from cheerful to manically cheerful. She is living in denial, hoping that the storming of Berlin will soon dissipate and her life of riches and opulence can continue. Hirschbiegel accurately doesn't portray Braun as a gold-digger, instead just letting the audience know that the world of the rich is all she ever experienced, she has no other frame of reference.
As the degradation of Berlin continues, the minds of the German officers begin to get tested. Their allegiance, dedication, their morale—all if it is put under question as Hitler begins his final descent.
Though a movie about the fall of the Third Reich, mirrored by Hitler's own path into the utter recess of pitiful resistance, "Downfall" focuses more on the "average people"—a small child, Traudl, and then a doctor. Each of these three are the victims of their circumstances, but that doesn't make them any less or any more guilty.
Traudl Junge, at the end of the movie, lets us know that she was considered to be a "young convert". That is, her place in the Nazi world was forgivable because she was only 22 at the time. She later realized that age is no excuse, and she has come to deal with the horrors that she helped commit, whether knowingly or not.
Shot beautifully viscerally with just the right amount of string pulling to make us cry, "Downfall" is an exhaustive work. It feels too long, yet I don't know how to cut it off at any point.
You feel like Dante, treading down into the inner most parts of Hades while watching "Downfall" (forgive the snobbery); but what is most surprising is how human every is in the film. They are terrible people, yes, but terrible people convinced of an idea. Maybe that's what makes "Downfall" so powerful, we can somehow empathize with the actions of a mother who kills her children, because we know how infectious a corrupt idea can be...and how deadly.
It's not a pleasant movie to watch, nor a necessary one to see; but one that was necessary to make.

Score: ★★★½

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