For 12 days in 1945 Berlin, with the unrelenting forces of the Soviet army bearing down on the crippled German capital, Hitler and his closest staff remained holed up in an underground bunker awaiting their final defeat. Exploring these last days in the Nazi regime, “Downfall” is a chilling and complex study of human beings capable of unfathomable evil.

Nazi Germany presents a particularly thorny problem to modern audiences. How do you understand the genocide, the purposeful and even systematic eradication of millions of people? To postulate that these are the actions of normal human beings driven to extraordinary circumstances seems to excuse the deeds. But to assume the German nation is comprised of sadists and lunatics would be hopelessly simplistic.

So it is appropriate that Germany, the nation that has struggled so much to come to terms with its past, has produced this magnificently lucid portrait of Hitler and Nazi supporters. Not only is the film laudable for its historical accuracy, but also for the moral ambiguity of its characters. Taking prodigious time (the film runs over two and a half hours) to show the banality of Hitler’s life and the interactions between his followers, the film is a reminder that people, and not cartoon supervillains, crafted the Holocaust.

That’s not to say the film humanizes Nazis completely. Most of them come off fanatical, and the scene in which Goebbels stands waiting while his wife slowly poisons their six children is horrifying. But they’re not maniacal. They eat and drink, worry about their families, and have astonishingly strong ties to the ideals of National Socialism that extend far beyond race. When most of them declare a death wish after Hitler’s suicide, their ends feel at once sadly misguided and coldly well deserved.

The film’s greatest trick is making the audience complicit in the atrocities. Using a saucer-eyed heroine (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s secretary, as the most obvious point-of-reference for the audience, the film forces sympathy for Hitler. It’s a trick supported by Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of a frail, animal-loving old man with shaking hands and lost dreams. He’s almost grandfatherly — until he starts spouting horrific racial dogma and condemning his nation to die with National Socialism. Only then does the audience remember that this is Hitler.

The film’s power comes from those moments of haunting realization. There’s a distance one wants to keep from all of this repulsive evil, but the film doesn’t grant that luxury. “Downfall” certainly has its problems — it spreads itself very thin trying to cover too much material and it doesn’t stir much emotional involvement. But the acting’s inspired, the cinematography and production values superb, and the entire film is among the most thought-provoking and challenging of the year. In the end, to deny that Hitler was human is to suggest that his actions can never be replicated; “Downfall” is a powerful reminder that only by understanding history can we hope to learn from it.

 

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