By John H. Foote
Bruno Ganz, a brilliant actor died last Saturday. In honour of this fine artist, we celebrate his finest performance in DOWNFALL (2005).
Is it possible to humanize Adolf Hitler?
Is it remotely possible to make human one of the greatest mass murderers in the history of mankind? A man who set a goal to eradicate an entire race of people?
Great actors such as Alec Guinness, and Anthony Hopkins have taken on the role but never found the dark soul of the character. I began to question if anyone ever would and perhaps the reason was that Hitler had no soul to create? But there was a time he was a boy, an innocent who adored his mother, feared his father, an artist who wanted to paint, wanting no part of politics. The First World War changed him, forever, as did his time in prison where he wrote his blueprint for fixing Germany, Mein Kampf.
There is so much in the film that will bring about confusing emotions, because on one hand we see an old man failing, yet we understand the monster that old man is and how he tore apart Europe and the lives of millions. Entire families were eliminated from the earth by this man, men, women and children were murdered in the most horrific ways, but here he is a shaking, ill old man afraid of the consequences of his actions. That we can feel sorry for him is to the immense credit of actor Bruno Ganz, who should have been nominated for an Academy Award for his simply astounding performance as Hitler, the greatest monster of the 20th century, and among the most twisted, vile human beings to ever walk the planet. Ganz slips under the skin of the character effortlessly, capturing the madness but also his capacity for kindness with those in his inner circle. But like all psychopaths, is it real? Or is it his attempt to be human, to show off his humanity to those around him? There are still eruptions of great fury when he feels he is betrayed or lied too, and paranoia becomes a part of his ever day life, a side effect of the numerous cocktails of drugs he was being administered by his doctors, and his own addled mind breaking down. Just 56 years old when he took his own life, he was said to look like a man of eighty. Ganz portrays him exactly like that.
What is often forgotten about Adolf Hitler is that he was responsible for the economic surge that restored an obliterated war ripped country to a world super power. By the time he was the leader of Germany, ready to launch his conquest of Europe, Germany was financially solid, able to build an army of extraordinary power.
This film explores the last days in the life of Hitler, living underneath the city in a bunker with those loyal to him.
But this is a Hitler we have never before seen. Older, stooped, moving in pain, his mind unravelling as his dream ends, no doubt fear of the death camps being discovered, and his narcissism attacking his mind, this is Hitler at the end. Light years removed from the electrifying speaker who brought the masses of German people to his side, this is a man who knows the end is near.
Using the book written by his secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) who served him the last three years of his life, the film is often seen through her eyes, as she saw him at his best and worst during that time in the bunker. As Russian forces close in, ever closer to the bunker, she watches his mind unravel. He will marry long time lover Eva Braun (Julianne Koehler) while under the earth, and formulate the last plans of the German military, though he knows the war is lost. They all know, but no one can quite believe it, or wants to live in a world without Nazism.
Bruno Ganz is simply astonishing as Hitler, capturing the arrogance of the maniac who ordered the massacre of more than six million Jews by the most inhumane of means. Drained of strength but not of ambition, he does not hear his generals tell him the war is lost, and if he hears them, he ignores them. Those in the bunker with him walk on egg shells around him, terrified to become the target of his intense wrath, but more they pity him, seeing their great leader reduced to a small, beaten man. Flitting around the bunker is Eva Braun, smiling through tears, painfully aware that doom is near, doing her best to keep the Dark mood as light as possible.
Perhaps the most frightening sequence in the film is Frau Goebbels (Corrina Harfouch) murder her children, killed in their sleep as she crushes a cyanide capsule in their mouth. With a fervent, almost pathological obsession for Hitler and National Socialism, her mind is clouded, and she cannot fathom either she, her husband or children living in a world without Hitler. That kind of blind faith is terrifying.
Her husband, Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), stands by horrified as his wife kills their active brood, falling to her rump after exiting the room. With the eyes of a devil, Goebbels believes in everything Hitler stood for, and for the rest of his short life, followed Hitler’s explicit instructions as Germany fell.
Oliver Hirschbiegel directed the film brilliantly, juxtaposing the strange mood in the bunker with the chaos on the streets of Germany as Russian soldiers’ approach. We see streets blown to bits, buildings left in ruins, citizens trying to flee, and suddenly we see German officers come out from a hiding place within the rubble. The bunker is not far from the hell, the bombs rock the ceilings and walls beneath the surface, letting those in the bunker know, the time to get out is upon them.
Frau Junge escaped the bunker, went on to write a book and be the subject of a powerful documentary about Hitler in her later years. Miss Lara is superb as the wide-eyed secretary, who sees Hitler a his kindest, but then as she says, “he says the most brutal things.” Both Braun and Hitler urge her to get out and she did.
The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, but nothing else and Ganz clearly gave one of the year’s finest performances. He too richly deserved a nomination that never came.
One of the great films of the New Millennium, forceful and compelling with an electrifying Ganz.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.