A nation awaits its . . .
Downfall (Der Untergang) released in 2004 and brilliantly directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, vividly recounts the last days of Hitler’s Nazi Germany in Berlin. This has been filmed numerous times before but none have come remotely close to matching this films depiction of the utter collapse and moral bankruptcy of not only Hitler and the Nazis but also the country as a whole.
The film starts with Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge recounting her first meeting with Hitler in November 1942 as she and other women are being interviewed by Hitler who comes across as a caring and polite man.
We then fast forward to April 20th, 1945 as the senior Nazis come to Berlin to make their respects to Hitler on his 56th birthday, and in addition to their sycophantic conversations with their Fuhrer they are also mostly all plotting their escapes from Berlin.
Hitler is played by the late Bruno Ganz, a very versatile German actor, but here he gives the performance of a lifetime. He doesn’t humanise Hitler but he does show he is human. A very hard balancing act which he pulls off brilliantly. Too many portrayals of Hitler tend to be second-rate ranting caricatures, but Ganz, and the film, also shows sides of him that depicts how he seduced an entire nation into the abyss.
According to screenwriter Bernd Eichinger, the film’s overlying idea was to make a movie about Hitler and wartime Germany that was very close to historical truth, as part of a theme that would allow the German nation to save their own history and “experience their own trauma”. To accomplish this, the film explores Hitler’s decisions and motives during his final days through the perspective of the individuals who lived in the Fuhrerbunker during those times. Eichinger deliberately chose not to include mention of the Holocaust because it was not the topic of the film.
The films also has one of the internet sensations in that tens of thousands parodies were made of the following clip where Hitler becomes angry after hearing that Steiner’s attack never happened – the subtitles are changed to reflect the comic interpretation. I even did one for a presentation at a conference on a project I was working on at a previous job. However, this scene is a chilling insight into the abhorrent nature of the man who blames everyone else for the catastrophe he has brought upon Germany and its people.
But unlike many other movie depictions of the final days of The Third Reich we also get to see the chaos of the fall of Berlin, largely through the eyes of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Dr. Ernest-Gunther Schenck, outstandingly portrayed by Christian Berkel. Whilst Hitler was living out his fantasies of imagined armies in his Fuhrerbunker, the citizens of Berlin were scrambling for any type of peace and survival amidst the carnage.
The film contains, IMO, one of the most distressing scenes in cinema history, as it painstakingly recreates Magda Goebbels poisoning her six children with cyanide in the Fuhrerbunker. This scene is utterly appalling in showing the woman’s callous evilness.
Also the film was the subject of dispute by critics and audiences in Germany before and after its release, with many expressing concern in regards to Hitler’s portrayal in the film as a human being with emotions in spite of his actions and ideologies. Screenwriter Eichinger replied to these responses from the film by stating that “the terrifying thing” about Hitler was that he was human and “not an elephant or a monster from Mars”. I believer Eichinger was absolutely spot-on in his response.
Downfall is no easy watch but it is an absolutely absorbing and riveting piece of cinema. In fact I rate it as one of the few truly great films of the 21st century and it sits amongst my top 50 favourite films of all-time.
and the tease for next weeks post . . . All About Me !