Any honest effort to fictionalize Adolf Hitler is bound to encounter criticism, because it is impossible to dramatize any aspect of his life without portraying him as, essentially, a human being. Even a film like Olivier Hirschbiegel's Downfall, which portrays Hitler's grim last days and makes it clear that he was mad, is criticized because it shows him in a few lighter moments. How can the beast who slaughtered innocent millions have been capable of gently mussing a young boy's hair or putting a nervous secretary at ease with a joke? But Hirschbiegel and screenwriter/producer Bernd Eichinger understand that evil does not exist in a vacuum and that part of what makes Hitler and Nazi Germany so unfathomable is that the worst of them were still human, and that the state was kept running by essentially normal people. The film is compelling to the extent that it makes clear that true believers like Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes of Winter Sleepers) and Hitler (Bruno Ganz) may have singled out the Jews, but eventually their contempt spread to all of humanity, including, tellingly, their own people. "They gave us our mandate," says Goebbels, expressing no sympathy for the ordinary Berliners being slaughtered because Hitler refuses to surrender. By Hitler's twisted standard, meanwhile, it's the German people who have failed him. The film as a whole, however, is rather slow and scattered, showing clear signs that it was cobbled together from a multitude of historical sources. Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) certainly has an interesting story (already told in the documentary, Hitler's Secretary), but the filmmakers offer little insight into why such people allowed themselves to be caught up in the madness. Downfall succeeds, for the most part, in painstakingly depicting who did what when, but beyond that, it feels like a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, the film did garner widespread acclaim in the American press, with many proclaiming it a contemporary masterpiece.
by Josh Ralske review