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The 365 Best Films of the 2000s

Heroes of the Zeroes: Downfall

Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“Downfall”
Rated R
2004

“Downfall,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s thoroughly devastating digest of the Third Reich’s final days, had few detractors. But some saw the 2004 film as an attempt to wring sympathy for the Nazis’ waning moments, cutting away as key figures take their own lives.

But intractable ideological decay didn’t disappear with brains on the wall or crushed cyanide capsules. It persisted in other forms, by other names, on other soils.

“Downfall” isn’t about commuting the sentence that history gave the Nazis, but heeding its warning — a gruesome, sustained-tension lesson about informed politics. Eighty-four percent of Germans arguably sealed their own fate when presenting absolute power to Adolf Hitler.

To him, the war was the people, as espoused in the bowels of a bunker beneath a burning Berlin — a claustrophobic chamber given a Kubrickian gloom and surreal serenity of children serenading soldiers with head wounds. (If there’s sympathy for anyone, it’s those little ones, whose view of Hitler as a bucolic Black Forest uncle is shattered during one of the Zeroes’ most purposefully disturbing scenes.)

Bruno Ganz generates indelible ferocity as Hitler — his composure snapping at will and foam frothing during numerous manic-depressive, delusional flights of fancy about military might.

Some of his right-hand men and women attempt to make good of misdeeds they’d orchestrated before the final curtain. But there’s no rooting interest for any of them to escape Hitler’s clutch and repent. “Downfall” isn’t about forgiveness, but whether people who left evil to its own devices could find their way toward a sense of complicit guilt.

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5 Responses to “Heroes of the Zeroes: Downfall”

  1. [...] The film reaches a comically awful low point when Rommel confronts Hitler as one final test for himself before he throws in with the conspirators. Luther Adler plays Hitler as a prissy, chubby little joke of an enfant terrible. That works fine for “The Great Dictator,” but for a drama like this, Hitler should be unnerving and terrifying — more Bruno Ganz in “Downfall.” [...]

  2. Angela says:

    Enjoyed the review. I really do not understand critics of this film complaining that Hilter is portrayed as a human being. Well, he was human and not a demon spewed from Hell. If he were only a ranting monster, no one would have followed him. His very humanity is what makes his actions and thoughts all the more incomprehensible and terrifying.

  3. [...] is “The Reader” outdid its Oscar peers that year — a decades-spanning drama that, like “Downfall” before it, went beyond facts into slippery human nature of lust, manipulation, retribution and [...]

  4. Nick Rogers says:

    Joe: Thanks! Yes, "Precious" is a perfect example of a film that understands sympathy just isn’t an option for some people’s monstrous acts. That’s why it’s also on the list … in a few months.

  5. Joe Shearer says:

    Again Nick you hit it on the head. One of the great misunderstandings of film, literature, or art in any medium is confusing understanding for excusing. A really great recent example is "Precious," and Mo’Nique’s incredible speech at the end of the film. By the time it’s over, we clearly understand why she is the way she is toward her daughter. That doesn’t mean we excuse it, or that it’s right, but we at least understand why.

    It’s the fundamental bit of understanding that takes away from the worldview of good vs. evil, making characters mindless, faceless monsters or making them so terrifyingly relatable in that we can make some connection with them and understand their madness rather than just write it off as simple, unadulterated madness.

    It’s unfortunate that some people can’t make that distinction that just because you can understand something doesn’t mean you are condoning it.