A grim and compelling film illuminates final days of a tyrant
A sinking ship full of rats.
By MARY F. POLS
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Late in the movie "Downfall," the actress playing Magda Goebbels throws herself at the feet of Adolf Hitler and begs him not to kill himself, to flee Berlin instead and carry on his dream of the Third Reich.
Hitler (a remarkably transformed Bruno Ganz) peels her off his legs. He's already said his good-byes, which included awarding Mrs. Goebbels (played with tight-lipped precision by Corinna Harfouch) the honorific "best mother in Germany." He's made clear his position on the needs of the German people: whatever they get, they deserve, for not living up to his standards. Magda Goebbels is, at this point, merely an annoyance.
The six young Goebbels children are nearby, perched on a set of stairs, looking adorable in a creepy kind of way. If Hitler dies, Magda is committed to killing all of them, because, as she says, they are "too good" to live in a world without National Socialism. If he lives, perhaps they will have a future. Within a typical cinematic scenario, it would be easy to interpret Magda's groveling at Hitler's feet as a final desperate act of maternal love.
But after sitting through this long, grim and compelling movie, an account of a sinking ship populated entirely by rats, my interpretation is that Magda's actions have little to do with nurturing and everything to do with fervor for a cause. Certainly she's not eager to kill her children, but she's not looking for a loophole. It is Hitler and all that he stands for that she doesn't want to say goodbye to. That's how bent she is.
Oliver Hirshbiegel's movie is based in part on an account of the last days in the bunker by Hitler's young secretary Traudl Junge, the subject of the recent documentary "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary." In "Blind Spot," we see nothing but Junge talking for the length of the film. Yet despite the static technique, it is spellbinding because Junge's story, and her reflections on her own complicity in the Nazi crimes, are so inherently fascinating.
"Downfall" gives us the dramatized version of Junge's experience, and she, played here by the Alexandra Maria Lara, who has the dewy air of a young Ingrid Bergman, is the closest thing we've got to a protagonist (although her survival as depicted in the movie is a softer version of real life, a misstep on the filmmaker's part). We're used to war movies about victories, but "Downfall" is peculiar in that we never get close to anyone but the Germans; the Americans are absent, the Russians just figures in the distance, lobbing bombs.
One could argue that we're only willing to endure movies like this to see Hitler and his generals suffer. I'll admit to experiencing some vicarious thrill at first at the prospect of the world's worst criminal in defeat. After all, by killing himself, he cheated us of a public display, didn't he?
But as the movie went on, my desire to see Hitler miserable faded and his followers became the focus of my attention.
At the end only the beady-eyed Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) won't accept defeat.