Saturday, June 9, 2012

#35 - Downfall

BACK-STORY:  “Downfall” (Der Untergang) is a German/Italian/Austrian production directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.  It covers the last ten days of Hitler’s life.  It is based on historian Joachim Fest’s Inside Hitler’s Bunker  and Traudl Junge’s Until the Final Hour and several other memoirs.  It was nominated for Best Foreign Film.  Bruno Ganz studied Parkinson’s patients to get Hitler’s twitching down.  The opening and closing interviews with Junge are from the documentary “Blind Spot”.
OPENING:  The movie opens with the real Traudl Junge wondering why she worked for der Fuhrer.  Then we are in November, 1942 and Traudl (Alexandra Lara) is among a group of women who are hoping to become Hitler’s secretary.  The 1942 Hitler seems like a nice guy who loves his dog Blondi (uncredited).  She types like me, but she gets the job from charismatic Hitler.
SUMMARY:  The movie jumps to April, 1945 and Hitler’s 56th birthday.  There is chaos in the streets and a fantasy world underneath in Hitler’s Bunker.  Hitler (Ganz) meets with Albert Speer and the delusional Hitler opines that the current rubblization of Berlin is perfect for clearing the city for renovations.   The callous Hitler rants that the German people are weak and don’t deserve to survive.  They are unworthy of his brilliance.  When urged to escape from the city, sinking ship’s captain Hitler refuses saying "I will defeat them in Berlin, or face my downfall."

               Meanwhile, in the streets of Berlin, Peter Kranz plays our “every man” (actually “every youth” – make that Hitler Youth).  His father is a disabled vet who wants him to come home, but indoctrination works and getting an Iron Cross from paternal Hitler seals the deal.  Peter represents the state of the German army as the Russians close in.  This must be like the Rebels in Richmond in 1865, except for the killing of unpatriotic civilians.
Peter with a panzerfaust
                Back to fantasy land, Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) livens a party by dancing on a table and then the party is deadened by a bomb blast.  The neighbors are asses.  Angry Hitler has his epic You Tube rant when he finds out his generals cannot carry out his insane strategy.  The girls go outside to have a smoke during a lull in the fighting – birds are chirping (nature goes on).
                The Goebbels family arrives.  What lovely kids, it would be a shame if anything happened to them.  They sing for Hitler which makes him feel better about the loss of the Trapp Family.  Speer (the adult in the Bunker) tells Adolf that he did not carry out the orders to destroy unworthy Germany.  Disappointed mentor Hitler sheds a tear, but does not rant or execute.
                There is a subplot involving SS doctor Schenck (Christian Berkel) who represents humanity in the midst of all the violence, death, and insanity.  He is one of the eye-rolling, do the right thing anyway characters.  The movie also has disgusted-look, follow orders types like Gen. Mohnke and Gen. Weidling.  And then of course there are the sycophants kissing Hitler’s ass and weathering his rants like Goebbels, Krebs, and Burgdorf.  This fascinating mix of role-players maneuvers through the madness.
                Hitler rewards Eva’s ditzy loyalty by wedding her.  Let the suicides begin. Or the assisted suicides.  Sorry Blondi, but they have to know if the cyanide is effective.  The most chilling scene in the movie involves Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouche) making sure her children do not have to live in a Hitlerless world.  This contrasts with the deaths of Eva and Adolf which occur behind closed door.  THis movie must have set a record for most suicides.  I counted 13.
                The movie has a surprisingly long, but satisfying denouement as the characters either join the suicide parade or try to survive the collapse of the Third Reich.  Traudl, disguised as a soldier, links up with Gen, Mohnke and the remnants of his army.  When the group is surrounded by Soviet troops, death or imprisonment decisions have to be made.
Traudl in disguise
CLOSING:  It’s a small Reich so Peter hooks up with Traudl and walks her through a mob of rape-minded Soviets.  They find a bicycle and ride off into the sunset.  The real Traudl admits she had no excuse for not knowing (or caring) about the Holocaust.
Acting – 10
Action -   7
Accuracy – 10

Plot – 9

Realism –  9
Overall -  10
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Undoubtedly more than a vast majority of the films on the Greatest 100 list.  Although there is some fairly graphic violence, it is mostly a character study.  It has three significant female characters – one sympathetic (Traudl), one pathetic (Eva), and one with the biggest balls in the room (Magda).
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  “Downfall” is one of the most historically accurate films I have seen.  The research was exhaustive with six books being consulted.  Having read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (twice) and Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle, I can attest to the movie hitting all the highlights of the last ten days.  Also, having read Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich,  I have to say you have to be a little skeptical about how some of the characters are protrayed based on how they wanted themselves to be portrayed.  Speer comes off very well in this movie as he does in his book.  Anyone not wanting to do all that reading can avoid it by watching this movie.  And yes I realize the movie has subtiltes, but it's not like you're having to read a whole book.  It is a better tutorial than any documentary could be.
                All of the characters are real people except Peter Kranz and his father.  Even Junge (who is reminiscent of Costner’s O’Donnell in “Thirteen Days”) is an actual person and her memoirs were one of the sources.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Schenck was also a real person.  Normally, those roles are invented to enhance the narrative. The dialogue is as authentic as you can get given the circumstances.  Some of Hitler’s lines that showcase his philosophy are quotes taken from statements he made earlier in his life  A good example would be this: " Life doesn't forgive weakness. This so-called humanity is religious drivel. Compassion is an eternal sin. To feel compassion for the weak is a betrayal of nature. The strong can only triumph if the weak are exterminated. Being loyal to this law, I've never had compassion. I've always been ruthless when faced with internal opposition from other races. That's the only way to deal with it."
CRITIQUE:  Aside from the interview opening, the plot is linear with no frills.  In many ways the movie is a character study of not only Hitler, but also his inner circle.  Herein lies some controversy.  These individuals are portrayed as human beings, not demons.  Some reviewers had trouble with the multidimensional depiction of Hitler.  I would not go so far as to describe him as a sympathetic figure, but Ganz does give him a warped humanity at times.  As I noted, Hitler could be charismatic, delusional, callous , paternal, angry, disappointed, etc  Without this movie, many would be unaware of Hitler’s charisma and the fact that he had a powerful effect on women in particular.  It’s the females in the movie that are most loyal to him.  He is far from a one-dimensional villain.  In some ways, the subtitles are valuable because by forcing you to read the evil that comes out of his mouth, you can get past the malevolent charm.
                The acting is outstanding.  Ganz is amazing in one of the greatest performances I have seen.  It was a travesty that he did not get an Academy Award nomination.  He is mesmerizing.  Not surprising as he has a reputation as one of the best German actors.  The supporting cast is very strong.  The characters run the gamut of personality types.  There are no weak links  Watch the various looks on the inner circles' faces when Hitler speaks.  Priceless.  It’s one of the reasons why the You Tube take-offs on the” Steiner rant” can be hilarious.
                The cinematography is equal to the script and acting.  The movie flows seamlessly between the claustrophobic underground scenes and the chaotically violent outdoor scenes.  In the corridors of the impressively recreated Bunker, the camera often tracks the actors from behind and then reacquires them from in front.  Deftly done  There are lots of shots through doorways, giving the audience the impression of looking in on an evil dysfunctional family.  The outdoor scenes were filmed in Petersburg and look like Berlin in the last days.  The music is spare and does not steer our emotions.
                The movie does have some clear themes.  One is the delusion that persists in the upper levels of a government that is losing a war.  Probably a similar vibe was evident in Hirohito’s inner circle in August, 1945.  It is interesting how sane people (and you have to admit that regardless of your take on the portrayal of Hitler, he was not insane) can delude themselves when everything points to disaster.  What's more unbelievable, but true, is how soldiers will fight on inspite of the futility of it.  A second theme is how non-evil people will tolerate close contact with malevolent beings and even work hand in hand with them.  A subtheme would be the ability of some, but not all, of these to remain innocent.  Junge would be an example of this type of person, although her statements at the end of the film struck me as being a bit revisionist.  A third theme is the naivete of youth.  This is portrayed by both Junge and Peter.
CONCLUSION:  “Downfall” is an outstanding movie.  It tops two other worthy efforts on this topic – “The Last Ten Days” with Alec Guinness and “The Bunker” with Alan Hopkins. You have to admit that Hitler attracts great actors.  I do not see how the movie could be improved.  It is a well-staged tutorial on one of the most famous deaths in history and it includes enough action to satisfy a war movie lover.  Speaking of which, I can only assume its rank at #35 is due to the fact that it is not a standard war movie.  Dear Military History Magazine, if you had determined that “Downfall” is not a war movie I could live with that.  But since you decided it is and then you ranked it #35, you look ridiculous!  I would say there are at least 15 movies ahead of it on the list that are not as good.  Not all the movies on the list are "must-sees".  "Downfall" certainly is.
trailer and rant scene


  1. I agree with you, it's outstanding. I couldn't find a flaw in this movie.
    It's maybe among my 20 favourites and shows that Germans make some of the best war movies.
    There is a tiny thing in your review that bugs me. Bruno Ganz is not a German actor. Ganz is Swiss.
    He is famous for his gentle roles and had at first declined the offer to play Hitler. It took a lot of convincing but he is outstanding.

  2. Outstanding Review.......!! Its one of my all time favorite movie after 'Stalingrad'.

  3. Thanks for the catch on Ganz' nationality. I apologise to my readers. Just saw him in "Unknown" - a forgettable Liam Neeson flic in which he is the standout.

    Thanks for the kind words, Debjyoti. I am so looking forward to seeing "Stalingrad", but I am waiting to get to it at #23.

  4. It's more than understandable that you thought he is German. He is in a lot of German movies, lived in Germany...

  5. I watched this movie for extra credit for my history class and I absolutely loved it. I realized that the film was historical accurate as I was watching it, but getting so into the plot,I found myself yelling "Run grandpa, run!" when the grandmother was roughly handled by a Nazi soldier and her grandson said "Let go of grandma," as the grandfather was running away. I had some of my classmate look at me funny when I said that. Even though that particular scene may have not happened, it gave the point across that stuff like that did happen during the war. Thank you for the review. By the way, I cited this page in my paper.

  6. Wow, that's probably my first citation! Thank you. I don't do this for the recognition, but it's still nice.

    It is so great when a movie is historically accurate and also well done and entertaining. That is unfortunately a rare combination.

  7. what hit me the most in this film was the scene were Magda kills her children and one of girls refused to drink it. makes you feel all anxious and nauseous when you realize thats exactly how it went down and that little girl knew something was wrong. what an evil woman she was
    BTW, im using this for a class project too so thanks!

  8. I hate it when Hitler is portrayed in films as some kind of caricature or personification of evil. He was obviously a hideously immoral and cruel man, but to portray him as some kind of demon detracts from the fact that he was actually a human being. He laughed, cried and loved his dog Blondie. I'm not trying to say "he had a good side" or "he wasn't all bad", Like what was shown in the movie "Downfall", I just think it's far more important and harrowing to show the simple truth as someone like him could appear again given the right circumstances.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.