In 1945, as Berlin falls to the Russians, Adolf Hitler (Ganz) and his inner circle retreat to a bunker for a futile last stand. Hitler's secretary Traudl (Lara) looks on as the Fuhrer veers between depression and delusion and finally marries his long-term
Most dramatic versions of the fall of Berlin and the simultaneous events within Hitler's bunker end with the suicides of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. But Oliver Hirschbiegel's impressive epic is notable for soldiering on grimly after the main character has left the stage, presenting the complete collapse of the Third Reich.
It keeps us in the company of the last remaining guilty parties, the time-serving minions and misplaced idealists, as they spill out of the bunker into the rubble of the city, struggling to find a place in the strange new world without the monster who's shaped their lives and wrecked an entire continent.
We get thumbnail sketches of the supporting monsters: Eva Braun (Juliane K÷hler) desperately organising parties in the rubble; Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) talking undying loyalty then scarpering to pitch some hopeless deal to the Allies; and, worst of all, Magda Goebbels (Harfouch), who gently murders her six children while her husband (Matthes) finds his preparations for suicide are upstaged by the Fuhrer getting there first and doing it with more style.
At the centre of it all is Bruno Ganz, easily one of the screen's great Hitlers. He performs in German with an exact recreation of that rasping accent, depicting with shocking conviction a mercurial tyrant who pats dogs and children, refuses to listen to the bad news and throws those famous tantrums - especially when told that the dauntless armies he has been counting on are largely imaginary. The telling strokes, though, are the callous asides which show how estranged from reality he is; when told young officers have been wiped out, he remarks, "That's what young men are for." One priceless moment, too dreadful to be invention, sees the official summoned to perform a hasty marriage obliged by Nazi law to ask whether Hitler or Braun have Jewish ancestors before proceeding with the pathetic ceremony.
Having made subterranean suspense film The Experiment, Hirschbiegel is an imaginative choice of director. Throughout, we get a real sense of the enclosed, insane world of the bunker - but the director never allows us to lose sight of the dreadful plight of the rest of the battered city, where the citizens are caught between Nazi death squads and the onrolling Soviet tanks.
Solid history, fine cinema. Downfall is gripping, moving, and, in the end, profoundly horrifying.