About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Home
February 2005

By Julian Roman


Distributor: Newmarket Films
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Producer: Bernd Eichinger
Screenwriters: Bernd Eichinger, based on Inside Hitler's Bunker by Joachim C. Fest and Bis zur letzten Stunde by Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller
Cinematographer: Rainer Klausmann
Composer: Stephan Zacharias
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch
Language: In German with English subtitles




Germany's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2005 Oscars is the stunningly crafted and emotionally visceral "Downfall". Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, Downfall is a three hour epic of Hitler's last days in his underground fortress (the Wolf's Nest). It is an uncompromising look at one of history's most fiendish villains from a purely German point of view. The film refers to the Holocaust, but spends its time focusing on the German leadership, the surrounding city of Berlin, and the utter collapse of the Nazi regime. It is a bold film that captures the sociopathic and delusional Hitler without portraying him as an unfeeling monster. He was a man, cruel and sadistic, but a man nonetheless. Many people will feel very uncomfortable watching Downfall. Emotions run deep when dealing with World War Two, but it is important to understand the people who were on the other side. We have seen numerous films about the Holocaust and Allied war effort, but this is the first comprehensive story from a Germany looking back at its dark history.

The film is based on the memoirs and interviews of Traudl Junge, Hitler's personal secretary from 1943 to his suicide in 1945. Junge (played by German actress Alexandra Maria Lara) was a beautiful, but incredibly naïve young girl when hired by Hitler as his stenographer. The film is told from her perspective and intricately explores her relationship to the dictator. One of Downfall's brilliant accomplishments is how it deals with Junge's own responsibility for the events that occurred around her. While never presented with any direct information about the Holocaust, Junge was privy to much of Hitler's personal life. She saw him as doting and paternal, a man to love and admire. It's hard to comprehend how a person could be so ignorant, but her blind loyalty suppressed any logical thought about Hitler or his men. She was so enraptured by him; Traudl Junge would stay to the very end. Her account of the waning days in the Wolf's Nest is a fascinating study of the human personality.

Oliver Hirschbiegel takes the time to develop every character in detail. While Hitler is the centerpiece, the lives of the people around him are brilliantly explored. It adds such a layer of context to see how everyone else reacted to their imminent doom. Some were petrified, aware of what was coming and resigned to their fate, while others supported the regime to the last drop of blood. These people are the most startling to watch. Downfall pays particular attention to Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun (the amazing Juliane Kohler), and his most stalwart followers, Joseph Goebbles (Ulrich Mathes) and his wife Magda Goebbles (Corinna Harfouch). Goebbles, Hitler's propaganda minister, was an ardent supporter and true believer in Nazi Socialism. The acts committed by him and his wife in the film are unbelievable. It's beyond comprehension, but shows how deeply affected these people were. They were willing to sacrifice everything for their sadistic ideals.

The ultimate success of Downfall rests on the shoulders of Bruno Ganz, the actor that portrays Hitler. His performance will resonate for years to come. I can't think of enough adjectives to convey how good he is. Hitler is a remarkably complex person. He is a father figure to the women in his life, an uncompromising tyrant to his people, a deity to his supporters, and a frail, sickly old man all at once. Ganz rants and raves against the ineptitude of his soldiers, then politely congratulates Magda Goebbles for making an excellent vegetarian dinner. It is an all-encompassing performance that explores every facet of Hitler's personality. He snaps, and in an instant, any warmth that existed in his eyes turns venomous. Ganz is the lynchpin of Downfall. He will have his naysayers and be scrutinized for giving Hitler any positive traits, but it's vitally important to have any depth of realism for the character. Ganz is Oscar worthy for this role.

The production design and filmmaking is meticulously done. Hirschbiegel shoots the Wolf's Nest as a suffocating lair of confined tunnels and rooms. They're living in a bunker and he makes no illusions of how cramped it is. Everything is dirty and drab, with flickering lights and the constant barrage of artillery. He also takes great pains to show us Berlin getting demolished. As every minute goes by, the city and its people are further devastated. Hitler did not see Germany existing after his death. He wanted it to die with him and Hirschbiegel uses this nihilistic egomania as an undercurrent to the film. For all of his boasting about the greatness of Germany, Hitler saw no use for it beyond his life. His ego was such that he saw his downfall and Germany's destruction as the same thing.

I believe that Downfall should be watched by everyone for historical purposes. While the film works on every cinematic level, the message it conveys and times it depicts are not common knowledge. It's important to see how a German, especially one so close to Hitler, viewed the events of World War Two. There is nothing in this film that promotes Nazi Socialism or forgives the Germans in any way. A lot of people have criticized the film without seeing it, because they believe it portrays Hitler in a positive light. It categorically does not. I would never recommend any film that had such reprehensible intentions. Downfall tells a real story of situations not usually explored on film. It should be commended for the boldness of its approach and literal depiction of a genocide's instigator.