Movies have taught us to see the world as a contest between heroes and villains. We like our good guys good, and our bad guys bad. So when filmmakers talk about making a movie that explores the humanity of someone like Adolf Hitler, people get nervous. Even if we suppose that Hitler, for all his crimes, was not quite the worst dictator in the world—he lasted only a dozen years, and the innocents who died under his regime may be outnumbered by the victims of, say, Stalin and Mao—we still want him to be the embodiment of pure evil. So we worry that making him more human will make him more sympathetic, and that sympathy for the man will create sympathy for his toxic ideas.
But in the case of Downfall, at least, nothing could be further from the truth. Several films about Hitler have been made in the English language, starring the likes of Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins, but Downfall is the first in decades to be made in Germany itself. And it is precisely because Hitler and his associates are shown in all their emotional complexity that we realize just how monstrous and dehumanizing their thoughts and deeds were.
The film is written by Bernd Eichinger, an occasional screenwriter who has had much more experience as a producer on everything from The Name of the Rose to the Resident Evil flicks (we won't hold those latter examples against him), and it is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose last film to cross the Atlantic, Das Experiment, was a positively visceral fictionalization of the Stanford prison experiments. Evidently Hirschbiegel thrives on claustrophobic environments, in which the shaky semblance of order threatens to erupt into sheer anarchy; most of Downfall takes place in bunkers in Berlin, and while ...1