This is one of the most amazing films I have ever seen. Although ostensibly the film deals with the decline, fall and suicide of Adolf Hitler, it’s about much more than that. Indeed, Hitler’s suicide occurs at about two thirds to three quarters of the way through the film, with the remainder concerned with the downfall (and perhaps redemption) of other characters.
I thought Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler, was terrific. Aside from the occasional hand movement which I thought bordered on paraody, I really got a sense of a complete individual from his characterisation. Those moments of tenderness and personality that are often shown, particularly when Hitler was in Bavaria. Those moments of rage and histeria, evident in the stadium-style documentary footage of Hitler’s speechmaking. But there are other elements too… the shaking of his hand, for example, which I thought was meant to suggest Hitler had Parkinson’s Disease and the matter of fact way in which he described how to commit a “successful suicide”. I thought Ganz portrayed both the sanity and insanity of Hitler effectively.
People are constantly dying in this film, at their own hands or at the hands of others. I know this sounds odd, but after a while the death, destruction and suicide become the norm. I’m not saying it becomes acceptable, but I think through repetition, one is really given a sense of what it must have been like to have been there at the end. In contrast to the well known footage of Hitler making speeches in stadiums, it’s a shambles. The army can’t fight anymore. A time when half the soldiers are either pissed, deserting Hitler, or committing suicide. A time when life, seemingly, had little value, where death didn’t seem to matter.
Perhaps the most distressing of the deaths, however, are those of Goebbels’ children, as we’re shown their mother giving them their lethal dose of something or other. Cynaide? But it’s not gratuitous, their portrayal has a purpose. It, perhaps, gives an insight into why people were there until the very end… why Hitler commanded whatever he did even after his death. What is it that would allow someone to kill their own children for an ideal? Or was it because there was, seemingly, no other option? The film doesn’t answer these questions, it just poses them.
Some of the reviews have described the flm as sympathetic towards Hitler. Yes, Hitler is described as a character with more than one dimension, but it could hardly be described as sympathetic as he declares that, despite everything, he was proud of the Jewish slaughter. He also declares the remainder of the German people were idiots and weak. And Goebbels, I think it was, declares the people deserving of everything they got when asked to consider the need to protect the civilians because “they chose their destiny”.
As for other central characters? Eva Braun comes across as a total idiot, totally unfeeling, except for the farewell letter she writes to her sister… but even then it’s full of trivialities. This is not really a film, though, about Hitler, or even the people like Goebbels, Himler and Braun, it’s about the people on the fringes around him and I think many reviews have missed the point about who the central character of the film actually is.
As it turns out, the central character is actually a young secretary employed by Hitler two and a half years before the end of the war. A young woman who probably falls in love with Hitler and who is, seemingly, chosen because of her beauty and not her skills as a stenographer or typist. Much of the plotline is about how she deals with the realisation of what is occurring around her.
Another central character is a young Aryan-boy… blonde, blue eyes… who fights the war on Hitler’s behalf as a member of Hitler Youth… but who also, somehow, survives which in some ways was a little distressing. Six million Jews died, but the young Aryan boy survives. A point to ponder.
For me, howevder, the most distressing part of the movie was the end which features the stock-standard “what happened to” feature of so many historical dramas. It amazed me that so many people had lived so long with the memories of the war and of the events portrayed in the film. And then, just when you think, that’s about it, one of the central characters, the young secretary, is shown in documentary footage in her 70s or 80s, reflecting on her life. She tells the story of how, throughout the Nuremberg Trials, she was surprised at the extent of the Jewish extermination. And then, in a truly remarkable moment, she mentions how, in a moment of self-relevation, she recognised she could have known more, she, perhaps could have done something.
As such, this is a really important movie for just about everyone to see.