Atmosphere is essential when creating drama. Some may argue conflict or characters are more important, but without the right environment for them inhabit, the film will only be two-dimensional. Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) creates the most authentic sense of claustrophobia and apprehension that has ever graced a cinema screen, ultimately resulting in the most nail-biting drama and enhancing the terror of its subject matter.
The film follows Adolf Hitler and his secretary, Traudl Junge, through the final days inside Hitler’s bunker, the Russian invasion of Berlin and Hitler’s subsequent suicide. The construction of these events is what is so striking about the film and the way in which Hirschbiegel has portrayed them is stunning, each flows from the screen and permeates your sensory experience.
It feels somewhat of a tired old clichÃ© in film criticism to say when reviewing a film that ‘the film really stays with you when you finish watching it’, as more often than not, it simply isn’t true and the critic is over-selling the film, but in the case of Downfall, I believe this to be entirely true and is what makes it just so fascinating to watch.
The initial element that grips you is just how tight and short the camera work is -shots are mainly in medium to close-up, the sound isn’t at all echoed and at times, you can even see the roof of the set. The last here may seem inane, but when you consider that in a studio sets won’t often have the roof on because of lighting restrictions, this tiny amount of detail is what pushes the construction over the edge and into the realm of sheer excellence. What we also have here is a disjointing, but entirely functioning construction -consider the how these subtle nuances have been carefully pored over to create an environment that is not claustrophobic, but sterile and uncomfortable. Ultimately, this moves the film from glossy, Hollywood fiction and into a much more appropriate field of naturalism and -we can only assume this one -authenticity.
Although there are a multitude of moments in the film that make it incredible, what is just so admirable about the film is its manipulation of time. Very few films can genuinely make you lose sense of time, but still keep you engaged with the film you are watching. There is a subtle directorial difference here though, between playing with the order of the temporal events in the film to make us aware of time -a trend that Christopher Nolan is putting us through -and being successful in drawing out the event itself, stretching the time so that the pace of it becomes incalculable.
Every minor detail is present in order to remain as faithful as possible to its subject matter and this is what is absolutely fundamental when creating a film about WWII. These differences are those that distinguish an average, competent director, and those whom possess the vision and genius to create films that change cinema. This is, for me at least, what makes the film so much better than most other WWII films. Each action in Downfall, each scene and each moment feels hours longer than it is and the tension which is created as an effect of this is, is one that is absent from many other films.
One could talk about Downfall forever, the acting is worthy of a review in and of itself, but in my mind, it speaks wonders on its own. Bruno Ganz as Hitler is what I would imagine to be the most genuine and authentic portrayal there has ever been. The terror that Ganz filters through and subjects the audience to is mind-blowing, disturbing and very present on the faces of his supporting actors, whom most of the time have a genuine expression that they’ve been just had the worst telling-off in history.
In a sea of WWII films, Downfall stands out as a beacon and an example of near-perfection for those whom wish to tackle one of the most difficult subject matters of all time. The film speaks for itself; it just needs someone to guide you towards it and I am happy to do so.