The resurgence of documentaries and the rise of reality television may render obsolete even docudramas as serious and accomplished as Downfall, a dogged, detailed chronicle of Hitler's final days. The domestic action in Hitler's bunker is like a Big Brother arc in which Big Brother is not the audience but Adolf, the most evil Big Brother of all time. There's no smoking until he's gone! The arguments in the command posts in and out of the bunker resemble a nightmare version of The Apprentice: The boss is going crazy and no one can agree on whether to please, ignore or poison him.
Bruno Ganz energizes the film with his extraordinary edge-of-darkness performance as der Fuhrer in his death throes; even when he's acting avuncular to his secretary, Traudl Junge, there's a bitter skeletal rattle in his voice box, a graveyard stench to his hunched body and crippled left hand. But the 2002 documentary Blind Spot, which consisted entirely of interviews with Junge, gave you a more insidious and terrifying image of Hitler as an oddly agreeable head of the house who adored his German shepherd Blondie right up to her execution.
Downfall follows Hitler into the depths of his delusions as he devises strategies for army divisions that no longer exist. It traces the monstrosity of his megalomania as he moves from claiming the elimination of Germany's Jews as his greatest accomplishment to arguing that Aryan civilians no longer warrant his protection because they failed to sustain his dream of the Third Reich.
Perhaps the most chilling scene comes when that Nazi diehard Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) poisons her six children rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. She then calmly plays solitaire before her husband Joseph (Ulrich Mattes) fatally shoots her and himself. Downfall's raison d'etre appears to be giving well-known horrors like that one a you-are-there immediacy. But we never feel that we are there. The movie's patient, plodding naturalism distances the audience, in its own sober way, as much as a political cartoon would.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel and his screenwriter, Joachim Fest, vary the claustrophobia with street vignettes, but are they revelatory about Hitler's squalid Twilight of the Gods? They're not so different from the sagas of crumbling cities in other falling nations - the attempts of heroic medics to treat combatants and ailing civilians, the formation of children's brigades, the battlefield demotion and promotion of officers (sometimes the demotion, then promotion of the same officer).
Most of the time we're trapped with Hitler and that desperate fun-seeker Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), with special guest Nazi appearances from the likes of Albert Speer, who confesses to Hitler shortly before the end that he disobeyed orders and kept proof of it. Within the claustrophobic confines of this drama, you can't help judging Speer - the supposed visionary artist and architect - as one slick corporate weasel.
That's the problem of Downfall in a nutshell: It provokes insufficient emotional and intellectual responses to a grotesque and atrocious dictatorship. Instead of the banality of evil, it gives us the banality of banality.
Starring Bruno Ganz
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Released by Newmarket
Time 156 minutes
In German and Russian with English subtitles
Sun Score **1/2