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Downfall (2004)
Rated R

Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Corinna Harfouch

Rating:
****
out of
*****

While there have been many movies made about the life of Hitler, there hadn't been a German-made film about him until 2004's Downfall. No doubt it would be difficult for German filmmakers to attempt to properly portray him for fear that any attempt to humanize him or hint he was any less of a monster than he was would set off a national controversy.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel portrays Hitler (Bruno Ganz) in his last 10 days in the underground bunker he holed up in during the last days of World War II. With Berlin surrounded by the Russians, Hitler's final days play out as he desperately tries to maintain his command in the face of inevitable defeat.

Although other films have been made about the final days of Hitler, Downfall is, by far, the most riveting. Based on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler's personal secretary, as well as Joachim Fest's book, Inside Hitler's Bunker, the film depicts Hitler as no more than a man, but that makes him all the more frightening. History has shown what he was ultimately responsible for but Downfall narrows the focus to an almost microscopic level. We see that this man was capable of making people swear to commit suicide in his name, even after he himself had already died. He was capable of making a woman kill her own children so that they would not see a world without the Nazi Party. And, still, women idolized him like a pop star. Scary stuff indeed.

The key to the film is the performance of Bruno Ganz as Hitler. Never does he veer towards parody or cartoonish buffoonery as some portrayals of Hitler inevitably find themselves doing, even when they try not to do so. Ganz's Hitler is brooding one minute and fanatic the next, with no real middle ground.

Downfall's many scenes of the destruction of Berlin and depiction of the anguish of the German civilians, as well as the claustrophobic bunker sets do not make an easy film to watch. However, it was fascinating to see the inner sanctum of such a crazed indvidual and the reactions of those with which Hitler surrounded himself as they watched and had to deal with his final, undeniable defeat.

For a World War II history buff, like myself, Downfall is an engaging movie with minor flaws. For others, it might be harder to recommend. Still, I think that everyone should give it a chance if, for no other reason, than to see what unbridled megalomania can do to a country blinded by national pride and patriotism.

Trivia: Bruno Ganz studied Parkinson's patients in a Swiss hospital to prepare for his role as Hitler. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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