Of all the actors who have taken up the dare of playing Adolf Hitler, Bruno Ganz may be the first who has truly nailed him in body, spirit, and gesture. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, a war epic produced in Germany, is set during the final implosion of the Nazi regime. At its heart is a staggeringly elaborate, full-scale re-creation of Hitler’s final 12 days in the vast and winding concrete bunker under the chancellery in Berlin. As the Russians close in on the city, Ganz stalks through the underground hideaway like a man dispatched to hell before his time. His hand held rigid yet trembling behind him, he pores over maps, convinced the German forces have let him down but that they’ll be launching themselves toward victory at any moment.
Ganz offers a queasy evocation of the courtly side of Hitler: the smiling baby cheeks, the eyes that could glow with personable sweetness when he was around women or children. But then the actor lets his voice rise into seething, spitting arias of rage, much as Hitler did at the climax of his speeches. It helps that Ganz is speaking German: He turns the language’s thrashing, bombastic percussiveness into a living soundtrack of violence. Yet the effect is far different in private: a neurosis inflated into a worldview. The Führer can’t believe — can’t take in the reality — that his war, his crusade, is over. Downfall dramatizes how Hitler tapped the gnashing urge of his anger and built it into a force field, shutting out all that he didn’t want to see.
If I respect Downfall more than I was enthralled by it, that’s because its portayal stops short of revelation. Once you witness Hitler’s denial, the film has little more to say about him. That may be why, at two hours and 35 minutes, it feels far too long. The moment of Hitler’s greatest vulnerability — his double suicide with Eva Braun — occurs off camera. What did he say just before he pulled the trigger? Missing from Downfall is a vision of this ultimate murderer’s relationship to death.