Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is genuinely moving. He isn't the crazed lunatic we all prefer to imagine. For the most part, he's fairly lucid and even sensitive; prone to occasional bursts of bad temper, but then again, aren't we all when things go against us. He does pass comment on the elimination of the Jewish problem, but it is not rhetorical or headline-grabbing; for him, it is a simple matter of fact. Our instincts are to regard the Third Reich and its leadership as inhuman, but in doing so, we dismiss the possibility that it could happen again. How could these people allow such a figure to take power? By humanising Hitler, the film alerts us to be vigilant.
On the other hand, Goebbels is portrayed as fanatical and unmistakably evil, as is his wife, who murders all their children before the couple are killed by Goebbels himself. Himmler, a relatively minor part in the film, oozes slime. The other significant characters are a mixed bunch: they know the game is up, but somehow seem to believe things will come right, one way or another.
In the Wehrmacht, the characters of General Weidling and his adjutant provide occasional comic relief with his gallows humour (I presume the translations are fairly accurate). "I am to be shot for moving the front 1 kilometre to the West". "It's a pity you didn't; it would have been a good idea." As the Reich unravels, the labels become meaningless. Though the SS tend to be more loyal and fanatical, a doctor within their ranks applies his medical principles first. The Hitler Youth are given the pathetic remaining defensive weapons with which to fend off the Red Army tanks. In this regard, one wonders whether the film tends toward regarding the German people and army as victims; in some sense, clearly they were, but through the law of unintended consequences, of their own making.
The film progresses at a measured pace toward its conclusion. It's sanitised, but there was quite enough blood and gore for my sensitive stomach. On the one hand, taking one's own life seems so pointless; but on the other, I suppose I can see that having ultimate control over one's own destiny may be more attractive for those who faced certain execution at the hands of the Red Army or the Nuremberg Trials. Around the army, the remaining civilians are disoriented and anarchic, completely in disarray at the outcome of total war.
The soundtrack is modest but important: the immolation of the Reich is accompanied by a simple, solemn and haunting arrangement for strings of the English composer Purcell's When I Am Laid In Earth (Dido's lament) from Dido and Aeneas, which works well in conjuring a sense of desolation, where the German composer Wagner's Siegfried's Funeral March from Gotterdämerung would have conveyed similarly heightened emotion, but with a sense of anger and retribution.
The film attempts to be a simple narrative, with the viewer allowed to draw their own analysis. It concludes with excerpts from a filmed interview with Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries in the bunker, and on whose memoirs the film draws. Even as an old woman, she seems confused with the nature of events; on the one hand, she seems to accept the evil that was done in her name, but on the other, she still couldn't quite believe it: a very human reaction.