How do you solve a problem like Adolf Hitler? Or more accurately: Must you? Hitler has become the face of 20th-century evil in the same way that Marilyn Monroe has come to symbolize 20th-century sex. His image communicates a concise tale that is understandable by almost anybody.
A movie that depicts any part of Hitler's life flirts with insult -- is there more to report than millions upon millions of murders? -- but it also flirts with the trouble of perspective: From whose do you tell it?
''Downfall," the recent best foreign film Oscar nominee from Germany, decides to tell its story from the perspective of Hitler and his followers. The whole film -- and a bizarre film it is --takes place during the humiliating twilight of the Third Reich and features characters with only minor or last-minute deviations from the Hitler agenda.
It's an arresting and skillfully made movie, directed with force by Oliver Hirschbiegel and adapted by Bernd Eichinger from a pair of books chronicling the events that brought the curtain down on the Nazis in April 1945, including one by Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge.
Most of the story unfolds in an elaborate maze of bunkers in the bowels of the German Chancellery, where a harried and spent Hitler (Bruno Ganz) and members of his party and house staff have taken refuge from the Russian army that has surrounded Berlin and rapidly reduced it to ruins.
For 2½ hours, the sound of exploding bombs and the sensation of quaking ground never quite dissipate. These are the final hours before Hitler took his life. We are there, and the experience is fittingly awful.
Hitler, meanwhile, remains a criminally proud nationalist to the end, refusing to leave Berlin. If its citizens die at the hands of the Russians, they die for Germany, and, in his estimation, that's the noblest thing a patriot can do. At this point in the war, he's a volcano of megalomania, given to infuriated outbursts. He's also hobbled, diminished, stooped, and palsied (one of his hands shakes): This Hitler is almost 56, but in Ganz's deft performance, he seems older.
Ganz has always been gentle as an actor. In his most famous roles, in Wim Wenders's ''The American Friend" and ''Wings of Desire," he's typically genial, holy, romantic, and sexy, sometimes all in a single look. I can't recall Ganz's face in ''Downfall." It's frequently obscured by the unkempt hair that swings down during his heated tirades. This is an intensely physical performance that gives you a sense of how ferocious a leader Hitler must have been.
Yet ''Downfall" is such a dreadfully serious enterprise that it borders at moments on black comedy. When Hitler isn't sitting quietly, he's erupting at the news that his appointed leaders are gradually abandoning him and surrendering. Goering? Himmler? No, no, no, he more or less exclaims.
Even Albert Speer (Heino Ferch), the man who was chosen to carry out Hitler's vision of building a new Germany or, in case of defeat, destroying it thinks remaining in Berlin is a lost cause. Hitler's nuclear reactions to his followers' fear, or common sense, feels almost inane or insane.
Ditto for his mistress Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), who is daffy with devotion, striking up a big party amid the encroaching doom and doing the boogie-woogie for all to see. Naturally, the only thing that shuts her up, and calms her down, is a bomb that blasts away the forced joviality.
''Downfall" frequently leaves the bunker and heads above ground, where it follows army doctor Ernst-Günther Schenk (Christian Berkel) as he makes his way through the carnage. Back underground, we catch Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) taking dictation, lending an ear to whomever needs a confidant. Both are held up as figures whose only crimes were dutifulness. In the movie's rearview mirror, they look, somewhat questionably, like heroes.
Also questionable is the way the movie veers from the documentary into the fetishistic. Death abounds, certainly. But the movie is careful to detail the methods and pore over the results. The camera can't get enough of heads being blown off. The grisliest scene, however, involves no blood or gore at all, just Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) carrying out the order of her husband, Joseph (Ulrich Matthes), to poison their six children, one by one, in their sleep.
The picture's rigorous attention to detail seems obsessive, yet this meticulousness is disconcerting: What to feel is left up to us. But in relaying such a historic moment, ''Downfall" has no feelings of its own.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.