The Academy Awards ceremony continues to devalue itself by giving honors to films, which are mediocre at best, or films that try desperately to force a political agenda down the American people’s throats, while gems such as 2004’s Downfall linger in relative obscurity, and certainly do not receive the recognition they deserve. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s study of Hitler’s final days transcends the triviality of being considered a film and instead functions as a window into the past. And for a little more th…n two hours, it feels like we’re actually watching Hitler’s (and a country’s) downfall instead of a movie portraying the events. Part of this authenticity is due to the meticulous recreation of war-torn Berlin in the last ten days of the German dictator’s life. The filmmakers’ painstaking research, which consisted of hours-upon-hours interviewing several of the still-living participants, as well as taking a healthy dose of its story from the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, succeeds in placing us right in the middle of the drama. But the proceedings would be nothing without the criminally overlooked performance of Bruno Ganz, who doesn’t just play Hitler; he becomes him. If Ganz cannot win a Best Actor Academy Award for what he does here, then the whole system no longer contains merit, and the little gold statue means nothing.
Of course, whenever Hitler’s involved in anything, there will always be a lot of controversy that surrounds him. It doesn’t help the film’s global acceptance that Ganz plays Hitler not as a two-dimensional dictator, but as a flesh-and-blood man with his own feelings of pride, uncertainty, and even warmth. But make no mistake. Any critic or viewer that tries to tell you Hitler is shown in a positive light did not even begin to watch the film closely enough. Thus, the only real controversy lay in the fact that Downfall de-poofs stereotypes of what a German under the Reich was… and more importantly, of what Hitler himself was. He is first and foremost a mentally unstable villain. But like all predators, he is not without his share of humanity which does invoke sympathy at times. All the while, the film never tries to justify Hitler. It just tries to understand him, and it is enormously successful in doing so.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation remains steady and clean throughout. The film has an intended dark, gloomy look to it, even during the daylight, yet each scene is rendered with remarkable clarity, especially the telltale conclusion, during the Russians final push through the city. Something that struck me as a nice touch of symbolism, which may or may not have been intended by Hirschbiegel, was how each character carries a grim pallor of death in their faces, as if they know what’s coming, and they emit that doom in their flesh tones.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 German track is the only one provided, and the only way you should watch this film (with English subtitles, of course). After all, Hitler’s tirades would not have the same effect if viewed with bad dubbing in another language. The five speakers do a brilliant job of capturing the progression of the Russian army, who start as a distant thumping and end as a roaring blaze through the streets of Berlin. Also, Hitler’s bunker is a smorgasbord of well-executed sound, from the celebration before the Germans realize the doom that awaits, to the funeral parlor silence of Magda Goebbels’ final moments with her children, this track does a fine job keeping you glued to the screen.
While the foreign release received a two-disc treatment, Sony plays it ultra-conservatively with the Region 1. However, the director’s commentary and making-of featurette are welcome additions, though occasionally hard-to-follow. This film just clamors for a double dip, and it’s one case where, if done right, I would be forced to fall for it.
Downfall contains a frequent dose of shocking violence, but nothing excessive in terms of gore. Still, some of the scenes you will witness in Hitler’s bunker, which was more of a small city in itself than an actual bunker, will hit with every bit as much potency as the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. In particular, the fate of the Goebbels’ family will stay with you for days, and even sneak up on you from time-to-time several months down the road. A closed mind will not be able to accept the film’s astute characterization of Hitler. For one, it may be too disturbing for some to realize that Hitler, while embodying great evil, is also a reflection of our species. In many ways – the most human of ways – he was no different than all of us, whether liberal or conservative. He felt as strongly about his beliefs as we do ours, and he had the power to pursue them. Forcing ourselves to ask the question, “Would I be capable of the same horrors to forward my agenda if I had the means at my disposal?” is not something we care to do. But such thoughtfulness can also mean the difference between realizing and incorporating self-control, or pressing yourself to dictatorial lengths just for a cause. For this reason, Downfall is an important film, perhaps the most important of the last fifty years, and should be required viewing in every high school or college world history class. While the special features are sparse, an excellent transfer and soundtrack to a powerful film make this one academic.
Special Features List
- Director Commentary
- The Making Of Downfall
- Cast & Crew Interviews