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DOWNFALL (Untergang, Der) (director: Olivier Hirschbiegel; screenwriters: Bernd Eichinger/based on the books “Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich” by Joachim Fest and “Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary” by Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller; cinematographer: Rainer Klausmann; editor: Hans Funck; music: Stephan Zacharias; cast: Bruno Ganz (Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Corinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Ulrich Matthes (Joseph Goebbels), Juliane Köhler (Eva Braun), Heino Ferch (Albert Speer), Christian Berkel (Prof. Ernst-Günther Schenck), André Hennicke (General Monke), Thomas Kretschmann (Hermann Fegelein), Ulrich Noethen (Heinrich Himmler), Götz Otto (Otto Guensche), Michael Mendl (General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling), Donevan Gunia (Peter Kranz); Runtime: 150; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Bernd Eichinger; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; 2004-Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“Offers a harrowing look at the Nazi downfall.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s (“Das Experiment”) fascinating straightforward dramatic lengthy study of Hitler’s final days as seen through the eyes of his personal secretary Traudl Judge, leading to his suicide in his bunker (located underneath the German Chancellery) the moment the Soviets have completely encircled Berlin and have entered the city in April of 1945. It’s written by Bernd Eichinger and based on historian Joachim Fest’s book “Der Untergang” (“The Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker, The Last Days of the Third Reich”) and the personal witness book “Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary” by Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller.

Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) was a 22-year-old Bavarian girl whom Hitler hired to be his secretary in November of 1942 (the film opens showing the tongue-tied girl nervously auditioning for the gig and the gentle Hitler calming her). She remained with him in his Berlin bunker during those critical last days. If anyone should know the mood of that claustrophobic and tension-filled bunker and what activities took place amidst all the outside chaos, it certainly would be Hitler’s loyal secretary (viewed as loyal to the boss but not the cause). In a film interview in “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” she gave before her death in 2002, she claims to have been naive at the time and didn’t know that Hitler was this ruthless maniac who ordered the extermination of six million Jews but now has a change of opinion after learning the truth. It was hard to swallow her gobbledegook explanation but, that withstanding, the film as seen through her eyes still offers a harrowing look at the Nazi downfall it probably never could have been gotten so fully accurate without her account.

What has come under criticism is the film’s attempt at “humanizing” such a monster as Hitler. Hirschbiegel reveals him as an enfeebled man who speaks in a loving soft-tone with intimates, loves his pet dog blondi and fondly pinches the cheeks of members of the Hitler Youth and rubs the heads of the Goebbels six blond children who obediently come to commit suicide with him in the bunker (mother and father are seen as rabid brainwashed followers, as mom states she couldn’t imagine her children growing up in a world without Nazis). This characterization though humanizing him nevertheless made him only seem less human in the long run. The stooped Führer’s dark side is shown when he bursts into loud paranoia-driven temper tantrums when his orders are disobeyed, calling out his generals as being gutless when they can’t follow his delusional schemes to attack the advancing enemy troops, and when he refuses to let his people surrender even though he can’t possibly win anymore, saying all the “good” Germans have already died for him and everyone has already chosen their fate when they followed him–they should have been strong enough to win the war and will get no sympathy from him for losing.

In one of the many subplots, Hirschbiegel shows the ordinary Germans who loved Hitler, as being blind dupes led to their doom and gloom because of their own stupidity or unwillingness to open their eyes. Hirschbiegel also shows a child (Donevan Gunia) starting out fighting to defend Berlin from Soviet tanks with the ill-equipped Hitler Youth and then just glad to flee when he becomes disillusioned after seeing his parents hanged by fanatical Nazi civilians who viewed them as Red sympathizers; a perplexed doctor (Christian Berkel) who agonizes over all the unnecessary violence incurred by the civilian population; and a truthful old-line general (Michael Mendl) who tells Hitler’s staff Germany can no longer be defended and is ordered to report to the furious Führer where he expects to be executed.

Hirschbiegel’s relentless scrutiny of the events of the last days leaves Hitler looking like a coward who abandoned his supporters in their darkest hours and was left with nothing to say in the end that mattered but to be perceived as a monstrous charlatan with a human face.

Downfall chronicles in an almost documentary-like style the last 10 days of Hitler’s life from his 56th birthday on April 20th to his carefully orchestrated suicide from both a cyanide capsule and a pistol shot in the mouth, to his orders to have his body burned by his underlings so that the Russians wouldn’t be able to recover it and display it in public. Though not covering new territory and not enlightening, the film remains memorable and definitive as both a work of historical worth as documenting real events and as an entertaining film (no easy task to do both). It never wavers from throwing its acrimonious light on Hitler and his tawdry staff as they face the end of their miserable days in drunken stupors or sober reflection, plotting to escape or surrender as war criminals, or die a noble bunker death. It does it with measured detail and assurance it’s getting its facts right and not rewriting history (something rarely done in Hollywood).

The noted 64-year-old Swiss-born actor Bruno Ganz plays this fictionalized version of Hitler with much gusto and intelligence, as if he understood as much of the tyrant’s nature that could be understood (Hitler is one of those characters who is unknowable) and inhabits his character by showing him to be of a limited education and a grimly moody and paranoiac man filled with an inner seething anger that clouds all his thoughts and actions. To get how Hitler talked with some measure of accuracy, Ganz studied 11 minutes of recordings that were secretly recorded by Finnish intelligence agents when Hitler unexpectedly showed up to congratulate Field Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim of Finland (WWII ally of Germany against the Soviets) on his 75th birthday on June 4, 1942. Ganz gives a marvelously nuanced performance, one that holds this film together. Eva Braun as eloquently played by Juliane Köhler, complements Ganz’s stunning performance with her own chillingly fine one as the ultimate blind follower who will follow the Führer whether he is right or wrong. Köhler lets us see how she can be drunkenly carefree dancing to swing as the bombs are falling outside the bunker one moment and the next moment snuffing out her life for the man she believes in.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”