I suspect that, to fully understand the significance of Downfall, you have to be German. Not only because Germans continue to deal with the Nazi legacy, but because for decades, it's been essentially verboten to not only feature Hitler as a central character in a German film, but to depict him as a sympathetic character. Downfall, which chronicles the last two weeks of the Third Reich from the point of view of Hitler's inner circle, may be a novelty to American audiences simply because for once we get to see an actor portraying Hitler who is actually speaking German. (No offense to Anthony Hopkins or to any of the scores of English and American performers who have also "done" the dictator.) But for Germany's beloved Bruno Ganz – best known to stateside art house audiences for his leading role in Wings of Desire – to take on the part of history's biggest villain, and try to find the humanity in him, it was quite a turning point.
No matter what country you live in, however, it's hard not to be impressed by the exacting detail with which Hirschbiegel and his crew reenact the Third Reich's chaotic final days. Maybe it's all the German (as opposed to German-accented English – I'm looking at you, Schindler's List) that adds that extra layer of realism. Or maybe it's that the script, based on eyewitness accounts of the survivors of the inner circle (particularly Hitler's personal secretary Traudl Junge, who serves as the central observer in the film), leaves no stone unturned, no fact unchecked. I'm no expert in World War II history, but to me the film feels accurate down to the minutest detail. So much so that its strength is surprisingly independent of the performance of its leading man - and to be honest, while Ganz is a fine actor whose craft shines especially in the quieter scenes, he looks no more like Hitler than anybody else would in that infamous mustache and haircut. In fact, few cast members look much like their real-life counterparts, but the essence of their performances feels spot-on, especially Ulrich Matthes as Hitler's sinister right-hand man Joseph Goebbels, who, in this film at least, comes across as an even more frightening figure than der Führer himself. (To be fair, Hitler at this stage was a shell of his former self, weakened by Parkinson's and paranoid beyond rational thought.)
Downfall is best recommended to WWII history buffs, and to anybody who likes a good war movie and is curious to learn more about this fascinating chapter of history. Its objective, documentary-like stance may bother those who prefer their Nazis stripped of humanity, but those people most likely won't see the film anyway.