"Downfall" is being promoted largely as a war movie. That's accurate - the story takes place during Germany's last stand in World War II - but it doesn't say why the film is unique.
Although six decades have passed since Hitler's death, this is the first German production in which he is the central character. German filmmakers of the neue kino group, such as Werner Herzog in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in "The Marriage of Maria Braun," opened the door to metaphorical treatments of the Nazi past in the 1970s. But only now has Germany's film industry gathered its courage to portray Hitler directly.
The characters in this docudrama about Hitler's final days in a Berlin bunker include his mistress, Eva Braun; architect Albert Speer; and propaganda chief Josef Goebbels. Also present is Traudl Junge, who discussed her Nazi past in "Blind Spot - Hitler's Secretary," the 2002 documentary. As she is played here by Alexandra Maria Lara, her presence provides a youthful, uncritical perspective that helps us perceive Hitler as his associates did. In the film's most sorrowful subplot, Goebbels and his wife ultimately decide to murder their children rather than let them live in a world where Nazi ideology won't reign.
The film's star is Bruno Ganz, the brilliant German actor known to American audiences for "Wings of Desire," last year's "The Manchurian Candidate," and much more. He makes his cinematic Hitler frighteningly real in both physical and psychological terms.
"Downfall" has drawn criticism from observers who feel that portraying Hitler as a three-dimensional person has the effect of "humanizing" someone who was an unspeakable monster. I disagree. Thinking of Hitler as a one-of-a-kind beast allows us to pretend his evil was an inexplicable, almost preternatural, phenomenon. Realizing he was a human being encourages us to analyze what shaped him, and why so many ordinary people were snared by his web of war and genocide.
"Downfall" is a riveting re-creation of three world-changing collapses: those of the Nazi party, of militarized Germany as a whole, and of the Führer who guided them into self-destructive ruin.
• Rated R; contains violence.