April 1945, a nation awaits its 'Downfall.'
The war is nearing its end, with Germany on the losing side of the conflict. Russia is just kilometers away from Berlin. The German Army, spread thin by its other incursions, is crippled, both in manpower and supplies. A crushed morale doesn't help matters, either. The Führer, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz, 'Youth Without Youth,' 'Wings of Desire'), seems resigned to his fate, taking refuge in his bunker, refusing to flee. A container of poison and a gunshot to the head end his life, and, in a sense, end the war.
'Downfall' ('Der Untergang') is quite simplistic in its approach: a look at the man who is, beyond a doubt, the most hated, infamous man in history, told through the eyes of his secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara, 'The Reader'), from the day she is hired by Hitler in November of 1942, through the death of her employer in April of 1945. The man isn't shown as the beast history books portray him as; rather he is shown as a leader delusional to the weaknesses of his army, or their ability to defeat the Russians at his doorstep. His lack of concern for the civilians of his country is the only true damning theme in the entire film. The entire topic of the Holocaust that he perpetrated is ignored in whole, save for a few hateful references to Jews.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel does a tremendous job presenting a film full of tension, despite any viewer being fully aware of the famed conclusion of the events portrayed in the film (a scene which has been much-parodied online), making the 149 minute runtime seem nearly half as long. It's nearly impossible to be bored with the film, despite its focus on dialogue and character interaction, rather than action, or a film full of character assassination. Historian Joachim Fest's 'Inside Hitler's Bunker' plays as the primary bit of source material, though interviews with the real Junge cap each end of the film quite poignantly.
While the script is taut and enthralling, and the direction gripping, no film can survive if the man playing a very well known historical character isn't believable, and that is never an issue. Ganz does such a brilliant job portraying history's greatest villain that it's nearly impossible to distinguish his performance as acting, instead of some miraculously restored archival footage. He plays Hitler with such commitment that he literally becomes the man. His looks are strikingly convincing (especially compared to some ridiculous movie Hitlers), his voice commanding, his movements believable as a troubled man nearing his end.
So what is the point? Many will look past the deep internal struggles portrayed in the film, due to the man the film is depciting. The humanization of a man more considered a monster isn't exactly a safe move by the film, and while it certainly doesn't show the Führer through sympathetic eyes, 'Downfall' shows another side of the German conflict, and the crucial final days of one man's life. The barbaric acts Hitler is known for ordering are still in full force through this film as his control further unravels -- a tiger doesn't change its stripes. As a historical lesson, this film makes for fascinating objective viewing.
'Downfall' arrives on Blu-ray with a VC-1 encode (at 1080p in the 1.78:1 ratio) from Momentum Pictures in the UK. The film isn't meant to be candy coated and glossy, so those looking for a sparkly picture need look elsewhere. Everything about 'Downfall' is bleak, and the video reflects said principle.
Colors are startlingly bleak, drained, and this aesthetic choice enhances the experience of the film. Blacks are decent, but delineation can be a real problem, as darker sequences absorb any detail around them. Contrast is strong, and whites are very clean, far from busy.
Skin tones are natural, and not washed out, despite the color choices in the film. Detail is greatly improved over the Sony released DVD, with great depth shown in facial features and war debris. There are a few moments where dirt splatters the screen, while an occasional thin halo outlines a character. Also worth noting is the strength of the grain, which adds character to the picture, but also obscures a bit of finer detail. Still, strong grain is better than a scrubbed and smeared picture!
A German lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix with forced English subtitles is the only way possible to view 'Downfall' through this Blu-ray disc. The lack of lossless audio may upset some, but those who give the disc a chance may find this mix to be one of the strongest Dolby Digital tracks they've heard.
The German dialogue is clear throughout, constantly prioritized, and never overpowered, even by mortar impacts or gunfire. The few moments containing music come through clear (with the natural distortion from playing a record), while dialogue over it is still sharp.
The surround speakers get quite a workout from this sound mix, starting with the movement through the speakers of falling bombs, and never letting up as gunfire crosses channels, planes fly across the room somewhat seamlessly, with a nice lingering fading effect to show distance and speed. There seems to be a constant ambiance from explosions hit from all angles, showing strong localized effect usage. The LFE also plays a strong role in this sound mix, with a wonderful rattle accenting each bombardment. In fact, the amount of sheer background action in 'Downfall' makes it sound like a glorified battle film, rather than a drama about the men behind it.
While film sounds absolutely gorgeous, the experience could have been improved, as the entire mix is fairly quiet, requiring viewers to crank up their receivers to a much higher than normal level to get the desired experience, and even then, it's hard to not imagine how much more accented each boom or scream could have sounded with a lossless mix of some kind.
Try as hard as I might, I cannot find flaw in 'Downfall.' The acting is all top notch and truly enveloping, the sets are believable, and the drama is amazingly intense for a film with a conclusion as forgone as 'The Passion of the Christ.' We know how it's going to end, but we still want to watch it through. The UK Blu-ray from Momentum features good video and great (lossy) audio, and a supplement package far deeper than than it appears. Fans of character studies will find a wonderful piece of art, while modern film fans may learn a thing or two.