The Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee Downfall takes place in Berlin during the final days of Hitler's Third Reich, long after any hope of victory has faded and the fighting has devolved into a bleak burlesque of combat. Children brainwashed by Hitler Youth are pressed into service with little training and receive medals for bravery, along with the occasional pinch on the cheek from their Führer. A general convicted of retreating and sentenced to be shot is abruptly promoted to commander of the Berlin defense after being told Hitler likes his account of his actions. (Understandably, he claims he'd have preferred the bullet in the brain.) S.S. officers and Hitler's top advisors must choose between ending their lives with their own pistols or facing a day of reckoning as war criminals.
Through it all rages Hitler himself; as played by Bruno Ganz, he cuts a distinctly Nixonian figure with his short, stooped-over frame, guttural bursts of spite, hound-dog face, and boundless paranoia. Nixon behaved as though his mortal enemies were gathering at the gate, eager to kill him, which is a pretty accurate description of Hitler's predicament. As he awaits his grim fate, Ganz's Hitler spits venom against a world full of enemies real and imagined, cursing the German people and his own generals as gutless cowards.
Downfall's overstuffed melodrama juggles countless subplots and a small army of characters who manage to make an impression in spite of limited screen time. Most notably, Juliane Köhler makes a stylish, vivacious Eva Braun (who knew she was such a fox?) and Alexandra Maria Lara is memorable as Hitler's pretty young secretary, who agrees to stay with him more out of professional loyalty than ideological conviction. Working on a big, sprawling canvas, director Oliver Hirschbiegel creates a visceral sense of a corrupt old order being ripped apart by a steady onslaught of bullets and bombs. At first, the film boasts a rich vein of ghoulish gallows humor, reminiscent of the pitch-black absurdity of anti-war classics like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. But as the end grows progressively near and suicide reaches epidemic proportions, all that remains is the inhuman brutality, the almost incalculable human cost of total wara military apocalypse that turns everyone into combatants, mocking the quaint notion of civilians somehow above the fray.