Watching this movie about the last days of Hitler in his bunker as the Red Army slowly made its way through bombed-out Berlin, I recognized something -- the actor playing Hitler is Bruno Ganz, who also played the lead guardian angel in Wings of Desire.
The contrasts and similarities between these movies are striking.
- Both take place in Berlin.
- Wings is set in the Berlin of the early 1960's when ruins still abounded but modern geometrically shaped -- and sometime beautiful -- architecture was rising from the ashes.
- Downfall's Berlin is a view from hell. Street fighting, corpses, burning rubble; quick and violent deaths abound.
- Children figure prominently in both films.
- In Wings, only children can see guardian angels, and when we see what the children see, the movie switches from black and white to color.
- In Downfall, children are either victims of Nazi atrocities or slaves to Hitler's influence. In one heartbreaking scene in Downfall, an adult begs children who are manning an anti-aircraft gun on a city street in hopes they can take out Russian tanks. The adult finally gives up after the children repeat devotion to the cause of defending the Fatherland. "But you will be killed!" the adult pleads, and then he walks away in agony.
- The central character in both films is played by actor Bruno Ganz.
- In Wings, he is contemplative poignant, gentle, and thoughtful. We hear him ponder what it would be like to become human after so many years of watching over humans. We become fascinated with his commentary since what we are hearing is someone discussing some of the most elemental aspects of being and feeling human -- the taste of coffee, cigarettes, ink stains on fingers, etc. We learn that angels are people.
- In Downfall we see that people can be monsters, and the central monster is Hitler. One moment he rants like a lunatic, ordering imaginary armies to defend Berlin as he savagely condemns the German people for "betraying" him. The next second he relents and scratches his dog behind the ear and we see a completely different and human side. Throughout Downfall, however, we are dogged by the realization that Hitler nearly succeeded as he was aided by millions of his own countrymen and women who supported his appeal to their baser instincts.
You might say that these two films portray both the best and the worst of human nature. In Wings the best is represented not by humans but by angels who imagine what it would be like to be human. In Downfall we see the casual acceptance of evil as well as parents willing to sacrifice thier very children to the funeral pyre that was National Socialism and the Nazi party.