After Hitler, the second-most important character in "Downfall" is his secretary Traudl Junge (well-played by Alexandra Maria Lara). Traudl would have been a 12-year-old girl growing up in Munich when Hitler came to power in 1933, and the film shows her at age 22 thrilled to get a job working for him. I believe she represents the typical German of that era, at first bedazzled by Der Führer, but after going through a period of mixed feelings, eventually becoming disenchanted with him.
I would say that the great strength of "Downfall" is that although no character is sympathetic, all of them are multidimensional. I could relate to most of them as human beings, even as I was horrified and appalled at some of their beliefs and actions. I was forced to admit to myself that civilized, educated human beings do horrible things, leaving me with a bitter aftertaste.
"Downfall" is set primarily in and around the Reich Chancellery ("Reichskanzlei" in German), the big Berlin building complex from which Hitler and his minions governed. Most of the story takes place in the spring of 1945 when the Soviet army is drawing nearer every day, and Hitler spends nearly all his time in an underground bunker connected by tunnel to the Reich Chancellery. The bunker also has what was designed to be an emergency exit that characters occasionally use to go outside into a garden.
The movie has so many characters I couldn't keep track of all of them, but here's a little about some of the most important ones: Hitler's longtime mistress Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) is with him, and they get married for about a day before committing suicide. Also, Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda show up with their six children, ages four to twelve. (The director in his commentary says Magda was "kind of the First Lady of the Third Reich" and the Goebbels stood for the "perfect Aryan German family.") And the architect Albert Speer drops in to bid Hitler goodbye and confess that he has been disobeying orders. (Speer later spent two decades in prison for his use of slave labor while he served as minister of armaments.)
But in many ways, it was the slow accumulation of detail that made "Downfall" so fascinating to me. For example, there is the minor character SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein. Hitler learned that Fegelein, who was married to Eva Braun's sister, wanted to flee at a point when the war was essentially over. Even though Eva pleaded for her brother-in-law's life, Der Führer had him executed.
The "Downfall" DVD provides a feature-length English-language director's audio commentary track that I found almost as rewarding as the film itself. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel tailors his remarks to an English-speaking audience, filling in many details I assume to be more familiar to German speakers. Some people have complained that the movie goes too far in humanizing Hitler, but in his commentary Hirschbiegel characterizes Hitler as a monster who was responsible for the worst crime in history. However, as the director points out, the most frightening aspect of all is that Hitler was nevertheless a human being.
The DVD also has a 58-minute making-of documentary that I found worth watching. This is in German with English subtitles. I was amazed to learn that the exteriors of "Downfall" were shot in St. Petersburg, and the documentary has some intriguing footage of that great Russian city. There are also old still photos of some of the real-life people who are depicted in the movie, followed by brief interviews with the actors who portray them, and the physical similarities are remarkable. My only complaint about this documentary is that the speakers are not identified, leaving me wondering who several of them are.
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