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Review: Downfall, Entering The Nightmare World

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(This review was originally written in March, when Downfall was playing the American art house circuit; I’m reposting it here in slightly edited form as the film was released onto DVD last week. One mild caveat: spoilers abound in this post.)

Downfall, the new German-produced film about the last days of Hitler, is playing this week at San Jose’s Santana Row cinema.

It’s a fascinating, not to mention horrifying movie.

Fascinating in that it has a surprisingly clinical, almost documentary-like feel, with near-forensic accuracy to detail about life in and around the bunker, and horrifying because, well, it’s Nazi Germany.

Three quarters of the story’s plot should be familiar to anyone who paid attention in high school history class, watched the endless reruns on The History Channel, or saw the previous attempts at filming Hitler’s last days in the 1970s and early 1980s with Alec Guinness and then Anthony Hopkins each taking a turn wearing the tiny moustache.

The Definitive Culture of Death

From its start, Nazi Germany was (arguably along with the Soviet Union), the 20th century’s definitive Culture of Death. In Downfall, when Hitler realizes that the Russians are closing in, he has his personal physician prepare several glass cyanide capsules, and asks the doctor to explain to him the most lethal way to blow his own brains out in the instants remaining to him after biting down on the glass, but before the poison takes effect.

To test their effectiveness, Hitler first gives one capsule to Blondi, his German Sheppard, and clenches her jaws shut to force her to bite into the glass; she immediately keels over.

As soon as they showed the dog standing near Hitler and the physician, I knew this moment was coming–but even so, I found myself physically grimacing and recoiling in my chair, perhaps because it dredged up memories of four years ago when we put our 16-year-old retriever to sleep.

Or maybe I just don’t like seeing an innocent dog sucking on a glass vial of cyanide, no matter how evil her master is.

It was then that I sort of mentally kicked myself–by that point, the film had depicted dozens and dozens of deaths, and of course, the real life Nazis themselves had killed 50 million people by 1945. But until Blondi’s death, I become increasingly numbed by the cumulative amount of horrors depicted on screen.

Blondi’s death sets the next segment of the film into motion: she’s quickly joined by her master and his newlywed bride, and then in the most chilling scene in the film, the Goebbels’ children, whom Magda Goebbels first coolly slips a Mickey, and then one by one, after they’re asleep, puts a glass cyanide capsule between their teeth and squeezes their jaws closed, before she and Joseph blow their own brains out shortly afterwards.

While Hitler and Goebbels are two of history’s most evil men, their women were also warped in their own unqiue ways: Downfall depicts Eva Braun as being almost as manic-depressive as Hitler (although given to more subdued mood swings rather than Hitler’s alternating boiling rage and zonked-out depression); and there is no more evil mother than Magda Goebbels.

(Somewhat astonishingly, this book, which I found at the top of a Google search when double-checking how Magda spelled her full name, claims that her fascination with Buddhism lead her to believe that killing her kids would be fine: they would all be reincarnated back to a better life.)

Risky, Somewhat Anti-Climactic Ending

As I said, all of these elements are well known, and most films about Hitler’s last days end, logically enough, shortly after his body is torched with Nazi Germany’s last few remaining gallons of petrol. It took a certain amount of nerve for Downfall’s filmmakers to risk a somewhat anticlimactic ending, by showing what went on after his demise.

Even with loudspeaker-equipped trucks roaming the streets telling Berlin’s citizens and its remaining soldiers to put down their guns and surrender because the Fuhrer was dead, its few remaining diehard Nazis were hanging or shooting their own soldiers (by that point mostly most old men, young boys, and even a handful of women), and even civilians deemed to be disloyal or unwilling to fight.

Beyond The Nightmare World

I only became interested in seeing Downfall because Victorino Matus of the Weekly Standard raved about it. While its underlying story is known to virtually everyone, overall, the film does a superb job of telling it–not the least of which is because its cast delivers fine performances portraying the most evil of men–and one astoundingly evil woman, as well.

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