Petrakis, John, The Christian Century
GUILT AND remorse over Nazi atrocities and the horrors of World War II have consumed Germany for decades, influencing politics, culture and the arts, including cinema. The rise of the German New Wave of filmmakers in the 1970s (led by Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Fassbinder) was fueled in part by a desire to exorcise Germany's dark past. Therefore it speaks volumes about the state of discussion in Germany that the country has produced a film that is not only explicitly about Hitler but one that the makers wanted to submit for an Academy Award.
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, scripted by Bernd Eichinger and adapted from two books of history (including one by celebrated German scholar Joachim Fest), Downfall looks at the fall of Berlin in April 1945 from the viewpoint of those occupying the massive bunker deep underneath the German chancellory. The lead figure is Hitler himself, who spends much of the two-and-a-half-hour film shifting between fury and resignation as the guns from the advancing Russian army boom outside.
There has been much discussion about Swiss actor Bruno Ganz's performance as Hitler. Ganz makes Hitler too human, some complain, and not demented enough. The fear (especially in Germany) is that any portrayal of Hitler that doesn't showcase him as a psychotic or a demon invites sympathy for the devil. (It was the same logic that required that Hitler be labeled a housepainter for many years after his death, as if no man with even a shred of artistic talent could be such a butcher.)
This argument is flawed. Evil is most terrifying when administered by a human being who knows what he is doing, and why. Ganz is hugely impressive as Hitler, giving a performance that keeps swinging from subtle to demonic.
What separates Downfall from other "bunker" movies over the years (including G. …