Downfall (2004) — Hitler’s last days

“When I meet Eisenhower, should I give the Nazi salute, or shake his hand?”

Justin’s rating: On top of everything, he ruined the toothbrush mustache forever.

Justin’s review: It’s called Godwin’s Law. Originated on Usenet during the early ’90s, Mike Godwin developed a law that stated, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Once you’re aware of it, it won’t stop hitting you in the face; in any long or deep discussion, Hitler just tends to pop up like a sinister jack-in-the-box, usually in trying to define an absolute evil or an absolute corruption of good. Such as, “Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore all vegetarians are evil. Which is totally true.” Never mind that Stalin killed more during his reign, or that there were dozens of dictators over the centuries just as brutal, insane, and remorseless, for some reason Adolf Hitler remains at the top of the Worst People Of All Time list.

It’s almost taboo to make a movie where Hitler is anything less than a raving monster who’s the prime target for our Allied heroes, but I’m actually glad that this taboo was broken in Downfall. Hear me out! Hitler certainly never needs to be glorified or elevated, but there’s merit in studying him and coming to a conclusion about the nature of fascism, racism, and evil itself. Sure, there’s one part of me that would seek justice and say that no movie about Hitler deserves to be made because we haven’t made a movie for each of his victims — why should their lives be forgotten and his remembered? But there’s another part in me that knows in honestly exposing Hitler’s broken humanity we might avoid elevating another one to power.

I wish I could say that the rest of this review will be of a lighter nature, but nothing doing. Downfall examines the final ten days of the Third Reich, mostly centering on Hitler, his staff, and his family as they hole up in the Führerbunker in Berlin. The war is already lost, but no one can seem to get Hitler — or many of his loyally blind followers — to see that. Instead, Hitler orders his generals to perform counterattacks with army units that are no longer there, promises the new head of the vanquished Luftwaffe thousands of new jet fighter craft, and thinks that if he can just get some more oil, all will not be lost.

At times he seems quiet and sulky, at times gentle and amiable, but mostly he’s a shell of the man he used to be, ranting about the betrayal of friends and a country he personally ran into the ground.

This is not a happy film. We who watch it have absolutely no sympathy for any of the characters on screen — many of whom were directly responsible for the “Final Solution” — with the exceptions of the naïve secretaries, a handful of children, and one Nazi doctor who honestly tries his best in the worst of times. It’s a maddening experience as we see a city calm before the storm, which starts to crack and break under relentless attack. Nowhere is the film comfortable: on the streets, widespread death and desertion trail the attacks, and in Hitler’s supposedly safe bunker, the walls rattle with artillery bombardments and desperation triggers suicide.

For Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries (who claimed she never really knew about the massive travesties her boss had committed until after the war), it is easily defined as hell in cramped quarters. She stays there out of misguided loyalty to her boss, but her frightened eyes drink in all of the morbid details of an empire disintegrating into death: A mother who kills her children with cyanide, Hitler’s screaming fits, Eva Braun’s delusions that this is a grand party, the soldiers who drink themselves into oblivion. There is certainly no hope here, no life, no joy. Just ashes and denial.

Much brouhaha is given to the softer side of Hitler that peeks through here. Some would say that any representation of Hitler short of a man who constantly bites off kitten’s heads and keys people’s cars is a crime in itself. Yet that would be a lie, and we’d know it; the worst person is capable of some good, and the best of people may do despicable things. In showing Hitler as a sometimes kind, civil man, the film is not absolving him of his sins, but instead forcing us to cope with the thought that the true villains out there don’t always make long, plot-revealing speeches to the heroes and cackle maniacally. I kept expecting Hitler to draw out a gun and shoot his deserting comrades in the back, as a film villain would’ve done, but when he doesn’t, it hits me that this is a real man instead of a caricature.

And that makes his previous acts all the more terrifying.

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