Downfall, a German film from 2004, is a staggering piece of cinema. It takes a part of history we’re vaguely familiar with – the last days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker – and creates a compelling, appalling, bewildering, utterly emotionally dreadful portrait of sincere fanatics as seen through the eyes of the youngest and prettiest of his secretaries.
I knew the fall of Berlin to a vengeful Red Army was chaotic and brutal; shells batter the bunker, and partisans execute “cowards” and 12 year olds are conscripted into mortar duty. I knew of Hitler’s own madness, his temper, his blind commitment to total destruction of the German people who’d betrayed him. (I didn’t expect his kindness though, which makes him all the more human, all the more mesmerising, all the more repellent.) I knew his loyal followers did dreadful things to prove that loyalty, even as their world collapsed around them. I just didn’t expect the sheer desperation of it; there’s no way out for any of these people, they know it, they just can’t believe it. They face a horror of an utterly revised world, a repudiated and worth-less philosophy and world vision, an end to triumph, a disastrous commitment to a course of action that’s failed them utterly. No sympathy for them, mind, just abject horror. It’s probably the best war film I’ve ever seen.