TRAPPED IN A VIPERS' NEST

It's impossible to turn your eyes away from Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall," a meticulous, spellbinding, provocative depiction of the final days of the Third Reich. Based on historian Joachim Fest's "Inside Hitler's Bunker" and on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary (and subject of the recent documentary "Blind Spot"), this puts us on intimate terms with the fohrer (Bruno Ganz) and his inner circle--Goebbels, Himmler, Speer, Eva Braun--when the Russian Army is closing in. Inside the bunker, a raging, deluded Hitler issues insane military orders while his subordinates keep up the pretense of his sanity, or turn on each other like vipers. We witness a culture of death, in which Goebbels's wife thinks herself noble for poisoning her children rather than doom them to a world without National Socialism.

"Downfall" (written by producer Bernd Eichinger) observes but does not editorialize, noting how banality and monstrosity mingle in the corridors of unchecked power at the endgame of authoritarianism. Ganz's furiously compacted performance is like none he's ever given: his hunched, manic fohrer, exploding into spasms of rage, is no caricature. He's scarily plausible. Juliane Kohler's giddy Eva is either in deep denial of her doom or half-intoxicated by the prospect. Does "Downfall" "humanize" Hitler and his henchmen, as its critics have complained? Yes, and it should: to pretend these villains were less than human is to let ourselves off the hook, to take the easy and dangerous exit of demonology. "Downfall" puts the horrors of the past in the vivid present tense, and makes it resonate anew.

Join the Discussion