I have always been interested in studying history of any kind. But I’m particularly fascinated with political and military history. How certain people acquire power, the rise and fall of once mighty empires, and the strategies used by brilliant generals to defeat their enemies, has always been extremely interesting to me.
However I think many of us often don’t understand what it’s like living in the middle of all these things. It’s easy to be interested in something and study it when it’s years, decades or centuries in the past. The film titled Downfall, rips away any of that by placing viewers squarely in Berlin, Germany in the closing days of World War II. Most people may know Downfall from when the “Hitler meltdown parodies” were the biggest thing on YouTube back in the day.
But now after watching the film, I find it hard to laugh at any of those videos anymore. Downfall is a gritty, nasty, realistic film that should be watched only by people who think they can stomach it. I’m glad I watched it to be able to truly get a sense of what things were like back in 1945 Berlin. But it’s also one of those rare movies that left me feeling emotionally drained after watching it. It’s a brilliant film by director Oliver Hirschbiegel that was nominated for an Oscar, but I’m not exactly itching to watch it again anytime soon. Downfall attempted to recreate the final days of one of the darkest chapters in human history, and did so better than almost any film I’ve ever seen.
There were several things that struck me in the opening minutes of the film. I was awestruck by the absolute carnage in Berlin, and this is even before the Soviet army shows up to capture the city. Buildings were smoldering. The screaming whistle and explosion of Allied artillery was practically constant in the movie’s opening scenes. And there were more civilians preparing to fight the Soviets in the streets, than there were commissioned officers. Some of these people were teenagers and young children! While Hitler and his inner circle were hiding in an underground bunker like the cowards that they were, they left everyone to fend for themselves!
Another thing that struck me, was how Eva Braun was portrayed by German actress Juliane Kohler. At certain times throughout the film, Eva Braun often strikes me as disconnected from reality. But then again, she had to be disconnected from reality, and at least somewhat insane if she was romantically involved with one of the most evil men in history. The war is all but lost and the Soviets are slowly tightening their grip on Berlin by shelling the city day and night, yet she swing dances, parties, smokes, and seems to be enjoying herself. The crazy thing? I truly think that Eva Braun, Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Magda Goebbels, and the other high-ranking Nazis in the bunker, thought they were going to be saved by some miraculous breakthrough.
What happens when they finally realize that nobody is coming to help them though, is an interesting study in human psychology and what the breakdown of the mind looks like. When the realization that they’ll all soon be dead finally dawns on them, they turn on each other like a bunch of piranhas. They eat each other. Hitler points the finger at his most trusted followers and brands them as traitors. Several generals begin fighting amongst themselves. The original scene of Hitler’s meltdown shows the moment when he finally realizes everything is over. It’s age-restricted but still available on YouTube. You can go to it from here.
What happened in Berlin in late April 1945 is a powerful story by itself. But when historical people are portrayed by incredibly skilled actors, they bring an extra layer of weight and realism to what happened. German-Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara plays Gertraud “Traudl” Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary who was responsible for typing many of his messages and pieces of propaganda to the German people. She was brilliant in portraying Junge’s mindset during the film.
She originally was happy to serve Hitler when he first hired her as his secretary in 1942. She originally saw being his secretary as just a job. But towards the end of the film, we see her eventually start to come to terms with what she has done by helping him. She realizes that while yes, she wasn’t directly responsible for perpetrating suffering and death upon millions like many of the Nazi soldiers, she did contribute to a bunch of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi propaganda that encouraged others to do those things. In the film’s closing credits, we see the real-life Traudl Junge admit that she should’ve known right from wrong back then, even at 22 years old. Traudl Junge seemed haunted by everything until her death in 2002.
Joseph and Magda Goebbels: The Couple From Hell
While Alexandra Maria Lara was brilliant as Traudl Junge, the portrayals of Joseph and Magda Goebbels by Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch, hit me harder emotionally. The portrayal delivered by Matthes and Harfouch showed me just what radical, blind devotion to evil looked like. Nothing came before their devotion to Hitler. Not morality. Not logic. Not reason. And especially not their six little children.
I’m rarely shocked by anything I see in movies or TV nowadays. I’m probably desensitized to many things, since it’s the nature of American television, unfortunately. But watching the scene where Magda sedates her young children to knock them unconscious, and then having them bite down on cyanide pills, is one of the most gut wrenching things I have ever seen. I did not cry. I was too shocked to do anything but watch. It’s one of those things where you know what happens, but you hope beyond hope that it doesn’t. Seeing something like that just ate at me. It would eat at even the most hardened person. Little children are so innocent, happy and pure. They haven’t been changed or dirtied by an evil world. Joseph and Magda’s children never really got the chance to be children. They had no chance at a happy life when they were raised by a pair of murderers!
Magda’s coldness with which she murdered her own children, and Joseph’s demonic, near-skeletal look have forever been seared into my brain after watching Downfall. They were evil personified. They weren’t far off from the man they blindly devoted their lives to.
Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler: A Masterpiece
I wasn’t exactly sure what to think when I first started watching the film. Hitler’s story has been done so many times, and quite a few men have portrayed him onscreen. But Swiss actor Bruno Ganz blows them all away. His portrayal of Hitler was unsettling, jarring and scary at times. It’s like he’s a ticking time bomb. Prone to blowing up at any small thing said or done by anybody.
But aside from that, Ganz also portrayed Hitler as a very charming, charismatic man who could be nice to others when he wanted something. He was a master manipulator. But he was also an enormous hypocrite and the world’s biggest coward. Several times throughout Downfall, Hitler’s generals beg him to order an evacuation of Berlin so the people caught in the middle of everything can get out. What’s his response? “They deserve to die. We’re about to lose Berlin and the war because they didn’t fight hard enough.”
So much for truly loving one’s country and people. What Hitler believed and did was as wrong as wrong could possibly be. But I would’ve had at least a miniscule measure of respect for the man if he had taken up a gun, stood next to everyone else and died fighting. But he didn’t even have the balls to back up what he believed in with action!
It takes a special actor to play one of history’s most evil people. And not only to portray him, but to portray him accurately. I also saw an eye-opening quote from Bruno Ganz himself when I found out he portrayed Hitler in the movie, “I couldn’t get to the heart of who Hitler was, because there was none.” Wow…
Bruno Ganz is no longer around, since he died on February 16, 2019 from intestinal cancer. But I will always believe he deserved an Oscar for this film.
A new perspective after watching Downfall
It may have been 3-4 days since I’ve seen Downfall. But it’s a movie I won’t soon forget. And with it, I have developed a new perspective. I realize just how truly horrible war is, and how utterly devastating World War II was. Anywhere from 50-73 million people were wiped off the face of the earth from 1939-1945. Including six million Jews, along with millions of other people the Nazis saw as “inferior” or “undesirable.” If I had lived in Europe or Nazi Germany back then, I would’ve been one of them. I would’ve been sent to the gas chamber for having Cerebral Palsy.
Along with this sobering look at everything, a new kind of anger has awakened inside me. Not at the Nazis, or the Holocaust deniers (although I AM angry at them). No, after watching Downfall, I realize just how clueless, heartless, and downright stupid people are when they call Trump “Hitler.” Or when they brand Conservatives “Racist” or “Nazis.” I dare every single person in that group to watch Downfall all the way through without looking away, and say those things with a straight face afterward. That is if they have the stones to even watch the film. I guarantee you they don’t!
The amount of hatred someone has to have in their heart to label someone else a “Nazi” is staggering. And it’s probably not far off from the level of hatred shown by the REAL Nazis back then! Every time these terms are tossed around like they mean nothing, they’re an insult. They’re an insult to good, sensible people. The people using them don’t realize just how dark history was back then. And every time they use those terms, they’re slapping every Holocaust survivor in the face, and pissing on the graves of those who weren’t fortunate enough to make it out alive!
I recommend that everyone see Downfall all the way through at least once in their life. Yes it’s dark, ugly and depressing. But I believe if more people saw it, they would do everything in their power to make sure nothing as dark as Nazi Germany ever happened again!