It would be figurative suicide to say Hitler was right, but “Downfall” is a film that at times actually makes us feel empathy for the worst tyrant history has ever known. Bruno Manz’s performance as the Fuhrer is one of the only in film history to view the man as more than one-dimensional, a caricature or worse.
A foreign language Oscar nominee from 2004, “Downfall” is dedicated to portraying a truthful account of the last days of Hitler’s life and the fall of the Third Reich in Berlin. It opens and closes with interviews of Traudl Junge, a secretary to Hitler who escaped Berlin as the Russians were breathing down the city’s neck. The story follows Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler and his many other associates who all surrounded him in the bunker just before his death.
“Downfall” is a gritty looking film, photographed almost entirely in dimly lit underground corridors or ravaged war zones. But it is a unique portrait of Hitler that still finds many angles, from a story and cinematic perspective, to view him.
His depiction here is not a man of massive stature, but you can sense his hidden power. We realize that Hitler is at times a visionary and idealist rather than just a villain. For him, remaining in Berlin is not a blind power grab but a firm belief that a world where Germany does not win is not a world worth living in. The scary truth that follows the film in its last half hour after Hitler’s suicide is that he has imbued all of Germany with this same ego.
That said, there’s an empathetic pain in watching a character who realizes his own defeat but can’t bring himself to admit it openly. At times he speaks so eloquently, preaching that “compassion is a primal sin” and to show it is a “betrayal of nature.” His mesmerizing presence reminds me of the young Benito Mussolini in the Italian film “Vincere.” Watching the pair, you can’t blame the thousands who followed them willingly.
The difference between “Downfall” and “Vincere” however is “Downfall’s” acknowledgment that Hitler was a man with an ego, but also insecurity. Behind his back, we see Hitler’s hand fidgeting in a nervous twitch, an elegantly simple way of delving us into his complexity. As his army nears defeat, it is not anger that escapes his lips but fear that, because for him failure is essentially betrayal, all his power is meaningless.
This is a scary, relatable thought for any human being, not just the evil dictator of a global superpower. That’s the beauty of this film, one that finds humanity amidst destruction and declining evil.
Much credit is due to Bruno Manz, who is absolutely marvelous as Adolf Hitler. Manz has brilliant control over his entire face and body and so wonderfully melts into the role. Here is a famous German actor who has worked for many years and with directors as diverse and talented as Wim Wenders in “Wings of Desire,” and yet his performance is so strong that he will forever be remembered as the man who portrayed Hitler.
“Downfall” has been widely seen for one hilarious, if slightly unfortunate reason. A series of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of internet parody videos have surfaced on YouTube of Hitler in a pivotal scene responding to things as diverse as Oasis breaking up, the announcement of Qwikster and even people making so many “Downfall” parody videos.
Watching the scene as it was meant to be, I expected to be chuckling throughout it. But the scene is remarkably powerful and immersive simply because of Ganz’s powerhouse performance. I think many people who have watched the film for the same reason will be equally surprised by its impact.