The other night I finally watched Downfall, the story of the last 12 days of the Third Reich, based on the book of the same title (both are actually originally in German, titled "Der Untergang"). I'd been looking forward to this quite a bit, actually, after watching this video, of all things. I had no idea this movie even existed, so when I saw it I knew I had to see it. So much time gets spent on the concentration camps, the POWs, all of the mayhem and carnage of WWII, but very little mainstream cinema deals with trying to paint an ACCURATE picture of Hitler, his strengths and weaknesses, his humanity. The fact that it was taken on by an entirely German cast and crew is also great.
The film clocks in at about two hours and forty minutes. The amazing part is, at no point in that time span was I bored. Never. I was always trying to see more, trying to know more. So, the fact that I wasn't totally enthralled by this thing is pretty surprising to me. I think one of the big problems for it was that they tried to stay true to the book's wider scope. It's about the whole country at the very end of the war, not just about Hitler and his closest cabinet. As a result, their are sidepocket parallel narratives that, for me, were a total waste of time, such as the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) Peter and his family. Completely irrelevant and uninteresting to me. In fact, I almost think I could have lost Traudl Junge, his secretary, too. I wanted to see what was going on with Hitler and those immediately surrounding him: those closest to him.
Here's another problem: only 12 days. The movie starts around 1942 when Hitler hires Frau Junge to be his secretary. It immediately fast-forwards to the last 12 days of the war. So all the intense relationships that Hilter has have already long been forged, and all we watch is the aftermath of the decline as these people finally see the end and most of them commit suicide. While the events are often startling, you feel no compassion for these characters. This may be a surprising thing to even want to feel for them given that we're talking about the top Nazis. But since we're dealing with a film that is NOT a documentary (and maybe even if we were), I think we need to find something in these people to at least empathize with, which makes their beliefs and downfall that much more gripping and visceral. Granted, there are plenty of emotional and sympathetic moments between characters, but it is at a point where they have already decided their feelings for one another. It is basically watching people unravel, which has its merits, but allows for a lot of distancing. It is a real skill to create a film about a villain, and make that villain somehow worthy of sympathy, but this is not really something that happened here.
Of course, the film has its merits. For one, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable, as a great deal of the film takes place within Hitler's bunker. The space is small, the lights flicker from time to time with the falling of heavy artillery, and the camera is often hand-held. The cinematography is great, too. And I think each actor inhabited his or her character quite well. They were very visibly affected (scenes of note: Frau Goebbels giving her children poison, Mr. Goebbels confiding for a moment his intense unhappiness about being sent away by the Führer, and crying about it, any of Hitler's outbursts, the two Hitlerjugend suicides).
The problems that I've laid out are not, I believe, problems in the eyes of the makers. After watching the making-of documentary I have come to realize that they had no desire to just talk about Hilter, no desire to make him a sympathetic or tragic figure. They wanted to make him REAL and ACCURATE, but not sympathetic, I don't think. And these other, seemingly superfluous narratives were also important to them, because I can only assume they were in the book. However, in my opinion, if they were able to hold my attention seemingly quite easily for almost three hours, that time could have been slightly better spent.