For the majority of Downfall's 2½ hours' screen time, theaudience is trapped, trailing through the claustrophobic and increasingly surreal confines of the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin. It's April, 1945, and Hitler's dream of a world purified by National Socialism is on its last legs. A stark, documentary- style dramatisation of the last twelve days of the Third Reich, Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall is, as you might expect, fascinating and repulsive in equal measure. Based on two separate accounts of the final days - Joachim Fest's 'Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich', and Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller's 'Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary' - many of the film's events are seen through the eyes of 22-year-old Junge, the Fuhrer's unquestioningly loyal, apparently quite simple-minded PA.
Occasionally we're allowed out of the Bunker and into the rubble of Berlin, where remnants of the Hitler Youth and People's Storm militia are vainly attempting to hold back the advancing Russian troops, and SS death squads, determined to go out as they came in, are stringing up pretty much anyone who crosses their path.
As the Red Army close in on the city, refusal to accept defeat in the Bunker gradually gives way to bitter resignation, which in turn gives way to an epidemic of gun-shot and poison-capsule suicides. Bruno Ganz as Hitler is mesmerising, by turns psychotic, delusional and utterly wretched, never less than horribly convincing.
The events depicted in Downfall have been filmed twice before, but never with such an apparently disconcerting lack of moral judgement. There are tenuous comparisons to be made between what Downfall does for Hitler and what Mel Gibson attempted, and largely failed, to do for Christ. Gibson's plan was to offer the world an accurate representation of the most famous murder in history. Sadly he turned up on set with a whole carousel of Catholic baggage in tow and any pretensions to integrity were quickly drowned in a sea of easy blood and Biblical porn.
Avoiding these pitfalls, Downfall steers clear of stuffing a political agenda in our face, and chooses instead to stick to the business of telling the story. Which incidentally it does with a great deal more heart and even more humour than Gibson managed to wring from Christ's battered body. Hitler existed of course, which may have been to Hirschbiegel's advantage.
Unsurprisingly, considering the subject matter, Downfall has already attracted a considerable amount of flak. Detractors thus far fall into two distinct camps: those who believe it is dangerously irresponsible to show Hitler dandling toddlers, petting his dog and paternalistically pinching cute Nazi cherub's cheeks - for these people Hitler may be seen to rant, rave, twitch, froth at the mouth and order endless murders, but absolutely nothing more; then, way, way over the other side of the sanity spectrum, there are those who feel that the film actually misrepresents the Fuhrer, making him mad when he was actually perfectly sane.
Clearly the latter camp has long since jettisoned any notion of shared humanity and has precious little tethering it to reality. People in this camp frequent online forums such as Stormfront and befoul the internet with senseless protest such as this: 'The film depicted Adolf Hitler as a murderous lunatic who inevitably "betrayed" Germany. And if that wasn't bad enough, the film concludes by paying homage to the alleged "six million" murdered Jews.' Clearly, odium of this level must be swiftly disregarded. These people are Nazis. And obviously biased. The fact however, that they exist at all, and in such worryingly hefty numbers, is highly disturbing. Which brings us to the first school of criticism.
A surprisingly large amount of Downfall's critics have voiced their concern, and even anger, that for the first time in cinematic history, we actually go some way to getting underneath Hitler's skin. The problem with this, they feel, is that it's impossible to observe anyone so closely - even someone so commonly accepted as the historical epitome of human iniquity - without getting to see beyond the standard props and poses of evil. So during the final twelve weeks of his life, as well as cracking up and falling apart, we also see Hitler the human being, doing ordinary everyday human being things. And it is disconcerting. It's like watching Satan stacking the dishwasher, or Paul Wolfowitz standing naked at the bathroom mirror, flossing: it just doesn't sit well.
Apparently we don't need to know that when he wasn't carving up his European neighbours and masterminding genocide, sweet-toothed fascist dictator Adolf Hitler enjoyed snuggling up with his dog Blondi, chuckling at Laurel and Hardy films or slipping off his jackboots and drifting off to his old Wagner 78s. The worry is that these details might make him 'too sympathetic' for us. Wemight start to warm to him, and the next thing we know we'll be logging onto Stormfront.
Which, as well as being somewhat insulting, is actually quite dumb. If anything, the exact opposite is true: the more complacently we paint Hitler and the Nazis as wholly inhuman, a species quite apart from ourselves, the less likely we are to notice when the next wave is in our midst. Depicting Hitler as a human being is essential. We must never be allowed to forget that the Third Reich was made up of ordinary politicians and ordinary military men in the throes of unchecked extremism.
Hitler was not - for example - a duck-billed platypus. He was an art student, not particularly talented, but with some extraordinarily uncharitable ideas about improving society, and the chilling conviction that compassion was a sign of weakness. We also do well to remember that the National Socialist Party was a legally elected government, which, with the tacit encouragement of an unquestioning populace, used the threat of outsiders to justify the gradual erosion of existing civil liberties and pursue a programme of global expansionism with which only the dangerously unpatriotic could possibly disagree. And if any of that sounds even remotely familiar, that's because it is.
Downfall is a horrible and important film. The sooner it is slotted into the GCSE History syllabus, the safer we will all be.
Downfall is released across the nation today.