Sitting through "Downfall," a German film about the last days of Adolf Hitler in a fortified bunker beneath the crumbling city of Berlin, is like spending two and a half hours in Hell's waiting room with a group of people who clearly need have no doubt about their qualifications for the fiery pit. The movie is harrowingly claustrophobic, and it's mesmerizing — 60 years after the events recounted, we know what is said by eyewitnesses to have happened, but there's a surreal awfulness in seeing it actually depicted.
Any cinematic representation of Hitler will always be both problematic and controversial. All these years later, the German dictator remains essentially an enigma, and it is widely felt that investing him with human dimension is fundamentally obscene. Director Olivier Hirschbiegel makes no pretense of getting inside Hitler's head; and he was wise to cast in the movie's central role the exceptional Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (probably best known in this country as the star of Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire"). With his big, doughy face, and his black hair plastered to his skull, Ganz recalls any number of vintage images of Hitler, from the deceptively avuncular lover of dogs and small children to the writhing, spluttering demagogue of the Nuremberg rallies. It's a performance that operates on the distanced level of reportage; and Ganz's remarkable control — his meticulous avoidance of psychological interpretation — is something of a wonder.
The picture is derived from two books published in Germany in 2002: "Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich," by the historian Joachim C. Fest, and "Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary," by Traudl Junge, the young amanuensis who took down Hitler's rambling dictation from 1943 to the very end. Junge, who was also the subject of a notable 2002 documentary called "Blind Spot," is a character in the movie (she's played by the fresh-faced Alexandra Maria Lara), and we see the bizarre goings-on in the bunker through her sometimes barely believing eyes.
It is the spring of 1945, and Hitler has gone down into his bunker accompanied by a contingent of top officers and SS troops as well as his longtime girlfriend, the mysteriously oblivious Eva Braun (played here by Juliane Koehler). Also in faithful attendance is his snakelike propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes); Goebbels' steely wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch); and their six small children. In addition, Hitler is briefly visited by the odiously dapper Reich architect Albert Speer, who has come to bid farewell to his longtime benefactor. (Like the rest of the actors in the cast, Heino Ferch, who plays Speer, bears an eerie resemblance to the historical character he portrays.)
By April, with Allied bombs raining down from above and Russian ground forces advancing on the city from all directions, the soldiers in the bunker realize that the war is lost. Some prepare themselves to commit suicide (one of them, sitting at dinner with his family, produces two grenades beneath the table and pulls the pins). Others reel drunkenly through the narrow corridors, or disport themselves in impromptu orgies. In the nightmarish, bomb-blasted streets above, the city's defense has been left to young boys and tired old men, with SS soldiers moving among them in search of people who'll no longer fight, dragging them from their homes and either shooting them on the spot or hanging them from lampposts.
Down below, Hitler remains deliriously adamant that his battered army will soon come to the rescue, that a thousand nonexistent Luftwaffe planes will fly in to repel the invaders. In a shuffling, crablike crouch, with his palsied left hand trembling behind his back, alternately brooding and raving, he curses what he is convinced is a "betrayal" by his generals, and by the German people, who will be his final victims. Urged to surrender for the sake of the endangered civilians up above, he dismisses the possibility out of hand. "In a war like this, there are no civilians," he says. "I will not shed one tear for them." Says Goebbels: "We didn't force the German people. They gave us the mandate."
As the end draws undeniably near, Hitler resolves to end his life with a pistol in his mouth. Eva Braun rejects that method. "I want to look good when I die," she tells him. "I'll take poison." In a quietly hideous scene, Magda Goebbels administers a narcotic drink to her children in their beds and then quietly makes her way from one to another inserting cyanide capsules between their teeth and pressing their jaws together; she gently kisses each of them goodbye after their death spasms subside. On April 30, Hitler has cyanide administered to his beloved dog and then retires with Eva Braun to his quarters, where, off-camera, they kill themselves. In accordance with his wishes, his aides carry the two corpses outside and set them afire. Traudl escapes through the encircling chaos into a new Germany of ruin, shame and despair.
"Downfall" is an exhausting movie — it drains your spirit — but you can't look away from it. At the end, as all the old, unanswerable questions about the Nazi period come swarming to mind, we see the real Traudl Junge, a woman in her eighties, looking back upon that time, and upon her credulous younger self. Like many Germans after the war, she says she was unaware of the full extent of the Nazis' barbarity, and only came to know of it in later years. She isn't angling for exoneration, however, and she rejects one possibly tempting rationalization entirely. "It was no excuse," she says, "to be young."