Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel | Year 2004
“One of the best war movies ever made”, Downfall (aka Der Untergang) gives us a powerful taste of how the last, bitter days of the Third Reich looked like. Oliver Hirschbiegel created a controversial movie which has been in all senses fantastically shot. Moreover, he offered us a look into the simple, yet terrifying life of Adolf Hitler, the Führer. This is definitely an A-movie.
Based on the memoirs of Hitler’s secretary, Downfall begins with Hitler’s last days. It is April 1945 and Berlin, until a few years the glorious capital, is in ruins. The city is surrounded on all sides by the Russian troops and people are becoming more desperate each day. The Führer himself has, with his military leaders, retreated into a fortified bunker where he had little to do except to wait for the inevitable. We as the viewer initially are confronted with the dictator’s psychopathic optimism and his tantrums which he fulminates furiously that everyone has betrayed him. We also experience his depression, especially when he finally realizes that everything is lost. While outside in the streets of Berlin the fight still continues, it is above all the drama – the mental conflicts – underground which leads the Third Reich to its downfall.
Downfall had caused for a lot of commotion in Germany before it went nationwide. Many Germans questioned the way in which Hitler is depicted on the big screen, because he would have been arguably made too much of a human. Basically, he is portrayed as a pathetic old man mourning for his lost empire.
What Hirschbiegel has done in this movie and has succeeded in, is great in every way. He ignored the usual caricature of Hitler as a devil, but that doesn’t mean that we should remember this man with warm feelings. Yes, he was kind to his secretary and yes he gives the cook compliments that the food is tasty (in the movie). But still, this is a man without a moment’s hesitation as he let down his own people and still was talking nonsense about the Jews when he let his testament to be written down. So the director really made a balance: he tried to show what many people didn’t (want to) see.
In Downfall, Hirschbiegel has sometimes achieved an unbearable realism. The scenes feel extremely real, the camera work is perfectly precise and despite a running time of 150 minutes the pace continues at a very high tempo. To be bored is out of the question.
Hirschbiegel is also blessed with an excellent cast: Bruno Ganz is utterly convincing as Hitler. Without having to make more of the big German monster than he was, he knows how to act like the convinced Adolf. Hitler was for the rest of the world one of the ‘biggest criminals’ throughout history, but according to his own logic he was a betrayed idealist. And this is the most surprising part in Ganz’ set of skills: he tries to convey himself as the real person with the real point of view. In other words, this is methodist acting Daniel Day-Lewis style.
All this does not mean there are not certain defects in the film. During the first hour we see many generals going in and out, without having the clear idea of who is who. These massive emergency meetings would certainly have been in real as well, but this results in confusion. However, every historical film should simplify certain things. In this case, Hirschbiegel allowed this to pass by quickly so that we could concentrate fully on the main characters of the film. Secondly, we meet a young soldier, Peter, of whom the character was rather placed uncomfortably in the film. Although Hirschbiegel wants to make us clear that it is not just about the events in the bunker but the fall of Berlin by means of showing us Peter’s story, his place in the film did lack the power it needed to really show off the personal side during the war.
Downfall still is and stays a fantastic movie about a terrible subject. Millions of people have died and how this film illustrates the fall of the Third Reich is meticulous and spellbinding at the same time. Also the actors did an excellent job. Hitler played by Bruno Ganz ignites the screen with every appearance. Two words to close off this review: must watch.