"Downfall" asks three disturbing questions: How human do we want Hitler to be? How brave do we want the SS to be? And how much compassion have we for people trapped like rats on a sinking ship when they're all Nazis?
In other words, it tests us on the limits of our humanity, which is why it is so eerily fascinating.
It chronicles the last few days of the Thousand-Year Reich, a political entity that lasted 988 fewer years than its creators boasted. The setting, roughly, is Adolf Hitler's underground bunker in the government district of Berlin, and those nasty boys 300 yards away with all the tommy guns, they would be the Russian army.
But the film, nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, is surprisingly non-claustrophobic. Other variants of this material -- "The Bunker" (1981) with Anthony Hopkins comes to mind, or "Hitler: The Last Ten Days" (1973) with Alec Guinness -- kept the camera in the hole with the nutcase with the trembling hand, the little blot of mustache and the rapidly shrinking career prospects. It's almost always like being locked in a phone booth with Sean Penn as he explains Method acting.
By contrast, Oliver Hirschbiegel's film is unexpectedly broad in the canvas it covers. It's close to being a vanished popular form, the epic, as it indeed tells the story of the downfall of Berlin in April and May of 1945. It flashes all over the dying city dynamically, visiting the Werewolf Units -- full of 10-year-old boys turned antitank commandos -- as well as hospitals choked with the elderly and the dying, the dangerous streets where fanatic Nazi vigilantes prowl in search of "deserters" to hang, and an on-street command post where an SS general tries to rally his troops for the hopeless fight, while he (and they) decide whether surrender is a viable option, or only death.
As a historical re-creation, it's meticulous. Only seven other viewers besides me will note the presence of the proper late-war-issue assault rifle, called an StG-44, in the hands of the German troops, a weapon that has appeared in almost no other movies. That bespeaks an attention to detail on the part of the filmmakers that's almost pedantic, but also reassuring. One can infer from it the larger reach of accuracy in uniform, vehicle, military protocol, haircut, even web gear, which is one reason why from the very first seconds a viewer believes totally in "Downfall."
But there are other reasons. Quite important is Hirschbiegel's style itself, which is restless and probing. He avoids docudrama cliches like clattering teletype announcements of time and date, or titles establishing character. His stock in trade, besides accuracy, is speed. You are simply there. Then, very quickly, you are somewhere else. It's thoroughly gripping in the way the scenes mount, the tensions accumulate; and although the ending is foreordained, it's still somehow dramatically powerful.
Of course the most important reason is the brilliance of the acting, which essentially gets at the movie's moral probity. The great Swiss-German actor Bruno Ganz plays Hitler, and this surely is one of the most daunting tasks in performance. Both Guinness and Hopkins, for my money, failed. The problems are enormous: Do you make Hitler camp? He's become a parody of evil, while at the same time his gestures and uber-familiar eccentricities -- that little smudge atop his lip, his own creepy nonchalance with the Sieg Heil salute that all the others snap out like ceremonial volleys, that baggy double-breasted brown coat he affected toward the end, the hank of hair hanging over the forehead -- make him weirdly comic, no matter how ghastly and inappropriate that may be.
Or do you make him a stock movie villain, another kind of cartoon, so over-the-top in his evil that he's unbelievable?
According to publicity materials, Ganz studied a rare recording of the conversational Hitler, and found him to be different from that herky-jerky orator with the floppy hair and the ball-bearing eyes. Modeling his performance on that recording, Ganz seems to find exactly the right pitch: His Hitler feels real and human, yet there's nothing particularly ingratiating or sentimentalized about him. We never forget who he is. Despite his kindness to secretaries (one point of view is stenographer Traudl Junge's, a role played by Alexandra Maria Lara; Junge was herself the subject of an interesting documentary, "Blind Spot," some years ago), he's a man consumed in anger and at any moment is apt to skew off on a rant on this or that traitor, to issue a snap-judgment death sentence and rescind it just as quickly; he's clearly in cloudcuckooland, believing in phantom armies and stunned when they don't follow his orders. How could they? They don't exist.
The film never feels, however, like an actor's vanity project built around a performance as big as all outdoors. So unselfconscious is Ganz that you have no sense of him wanting or needing the camera's attention, and it looks everywhere, swiftly interpreting its subsidiary characters. As Eva Braun, Juliane Koehler is brilliantly shallow. Her devotion is utter and total, but the girl just wants to jitterbug and can't help herself. She seems more like a high school cheerleader than the mistress -- ultimately wife -- of the world's most twisted sociopath.
Probably the best performance is by Corinna Harfouch as the terrifying Magda Goebbels. A woman of beauty and poise, a social climber of the most rigid and grotesque sort, she is able to say to her leader as he pins a little swastika on her lapel amid the shells of the red guns outside, "You have made me the happiest woman in Germany!" This is a few hours before she poisons her six children.
That scene is hard to get through. For reasons unclear, Hirschbiegel does not give us the full-frontal when Hitler and Eva finish themselves off, nor Magda and her creepy husband, Joseph (played with steely intensity by Ulrich Matthes), but he stays with the death of the kids through it all, making us see Magda's resolve overcoming her love, and the craziness under her icy beauty. It's truly chilling.
Perhaps the most problematic character is an SS doctor, Ernst-Guenter Schenck (played brilliantly by Christian Berkel). When one sees the double-runes, the lightning flashes, of the inner party adorning his black lapel, one's trigger finger begins to twitch. Yet it turns out that Dr. Schenck is genuinely humane and heroic: He's all over the place, bringing penicillin to cut-off hospitals, scampering through fire to deliver it, working 21-hour days in a trauma ward where he gets a crash course in wound surgery, arguing against the Nazi martyr complex in favor of mercy for civilians and the wounded.
Equally, the German officers seem exceedingly professional and heroic. They're all duty guys: no deserters, just hard, practical military men stuck in a dreadful mess and aware that they are doomed and struggling to find an ethical -- by their standards -- way of dealing with it.
And so we ask: Should we admire these people? They are genuinely heroic, caught in a genuinely tragic situation, in the crushing midst of death and chaos. The movie invites you to despise them, but somehow, you can't. How much easier if the country had been all Joes and Magdas, all Adolfs and Evas, clear mutants from normalcy. But alas, and unforgettably, as "Downfall" makes clear, most of the Nazis were human beings.
Downfall (148 minutes, in German and Russian with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street and Loews Georgetown) is rated R for extremely graphic depictions of wounds, some nudity and the disturbing deaths of children.