Downfall is a landmark in the history of German cinema: the first German film to approach the subject of Hitler and the Nazi party since the 1956 Der Letste Akt (The Last Act), a look at the notorious dictatorâ€™s last ten days from the viewpoint of a guardsman. Similarly, Downfall chronicles the Third Reichâ€™s collapse amid bombing and treachery, except the film is seen through the eyes of several followers holed up in Hitlerâ€™s bunker. The result is a merciless education in the kind of stranglehold Adolf Hitler had on those closest to him.
Downfall (or “Der Untergang”) is a 2004 German/Italian/Austrian film. It is based on many books: Inside Hitler’s Bunker (by Joachim Fest), Inside the Third Reich (by Albert Speer), Until the Final Hour (by Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries), Hitler’s Last Days: An Eye-Witness Account (by Gerhardt Boldt), and many others. The film is in German and Russian language. Distributed by Constantin Film, the movie is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Plot. The film depicts the final ten days of Adolf Hitler’s reign of Nazi Germany in 1945, seen through the eye of a woman.
The movie begins with a scene in 1942. A group of German secretaries are presented to Adolf Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. After some tests, 22-year old Traudl Humps (now Traudl Junge) is selected to be one of Hitler’s personal secretaries.
The film then shifts to April of 1945. Humps still works for Hitler as Red Army forces are strongly bearing down on Germany. Helplessly, Hitler retreats to a secret bunker in Berlin for what would prove to be the last ten days of his life and that of the Third Reich. Hitler declares, "I will defeat them in Berlin, or face my downfall."
Many events ensue. Hitler rewards some active youths, promote some of his men, and reflexively and constantly changes the battle plans. In an attempt to lighten the atmosphere, Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun throws a cheerful party but Soviet artillery shells end the party early.
The next day, more attacks are done and it is evident that the Nazi regime is crumbling. Hitler’s closest associates, including Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer urge him to flee Berlin. However, Hitler refuses to leave the city. In his desperation, Hitler is frequently ranting to Junge, blaming everyone around him while trying to understand where his leadership failed.
Later in the film, Hitler dictates his last will and testament to Traudl Junge and marries Eva Braun. Braun affectionately gives Junge one of her best coats and makes her promise to flee the bunker. Hitler eats his final meal in silence with Constanze Manziarly and his secretaries. He bids farewell to the bunker staff and then retires to his room with Braun. Hitler states, "Tomorrow, millions of people will curse me, but fate has taken its course."
Hitler and Braun retreat into their rooms and commit suicide. Their bodies are carried up the stairs to ground level and through the bunker's emergency exit to the Reich Chancellery garden. There, the corpses are doused in petrol and set alight in a shell crater. Meanwhile, the Goebbels round up their children and bring them to the bunker as Berlins begins to fall. Magda Goebbels poisons her six children while her husband waits. Then Goebbels and Magda go to the Chancellery garden. Goebbels shoots his wife before shooting himself. SS men waiting nearby with petrol cans in hand hasten to the remains to attempt a cremation.
Traudl Junge escapes into the chaos of the fallen city. Traudl blunders into a celebrating drunken Red Army soldier who turns his attention to her. Peter, a Hitler youth awardee, tugs Traudly and after finding an abandoned bicycle, they pedal away from Berlin together.
Commentary. Downfall is a very interesting movie about Adolf Hitler in his final moments. Set in the 40s, the movie is done in soft faded colors. Technically, the movie has exceptional cinematography with fitting sound and scoring.
More than these aspects, what is captivating about Downfall is the theme itself and of course, the man behind one of history’s most fatal accounts. It is about Adolf Hitler, his influence and his hold to power. In the trying and anxious times depicted in the film, Hitler losses his sense of reality and does several reckless decisions and thoughts. Hitler is shown as someone with emotions, who, like everyone else, breaks apart but soon finds the strength and will to piece himself together knowing that there are people who love and believe in him. Hitler is seen as someone who holds on to his dreams, principles and aspirations, and that he is capable of loving the people around him. More fascinating, Hitler is portrayed as a human, not a monster which we all know.
The movie was highly criticized because of its sympathetic treatment to Hitler. In a way, such reaction is fairly justified as killing millions of people mercilessly could not solicit sympathy. Downfall only shows Hitler’s most vulnerable moments, and watching him in his most powerless and most insane state is honestly heart-breaking. It is like seeing a proud king reduced to a meek street rat. But in the end, there was no change of hearts in Hitler. He remained to be the selfish and arrogant dictator. He found no redemption for himself. He might have become human in those ten days, but his years of oppression and his cowardice act in the very end had taken the human away from him.
Still, the movie gave me a good reflection – that no matter how few people love and have faith in us, and no matter how pressing and unholy the situation is, we still hold on to who we are and what we believe in.
Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor who played Adolf Hitler, deserves a standing ovation for his portrayal. If I had not known Hitler, I would have fallen for the man. Ganz was very believable. The tenderness and weakness he portrays amidst all the rage and insanity was superb. I think the sympathy and sentimentality aroused in the film is largely because of him.
The film was nominated for the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in the 77th Academy Awards. The film also won the 2005 BBC Four World Cinema competition.
Related Reviews of Foreign Language Films: Taare Zameen Par, Tsotsi, A Frozen Flower