Thursday, November 19, 2009

2004: Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel)

Released: September 16, 2004 (Germany)

a.k.a.: Der Untergang

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel; Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger based on the book “Bis zur letzten Stunde” by Joachim Fest, Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller; Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann; Studio: Constantin Film; Producer: Bernd Eichinger

Bruno Ganz (Adolf Hitler), Alexandra Maria Lara (Traudl Junge), Juliane Kohler (Eva Braun), Thomas Kretschmann (SS-Gruppenfuhrer Hermann Fegelein), Christian Redl (Generaloberst Alfred Jodl), Ulrich Matthes (Joseph Goebbels), Carinna Harfouch (Magda Goebbels), Heino Ferch (Albert Speer), Andre Hennicke (SS-Brigagefuhrer Wilhelm Monke), Ulrich Noethen (Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler), Christian Berkel (Ernst-Gunther Schenck), Rolf Kanies (Hans Krebs)

I have a feeling that this one could divide readers here at the blog nearly as widely is it did the country of Germany upon its release. As someone who is obsessed with history and loves nothing more than a solidly-constructed historical drama, perhaps I am the perfect mark for such a film. There has always been an air of mystery surrounding the closing of the Third Reich, specifically concerning the final days of Adolf Hitler. In all honesty, I knew very little about the frenetic circumstances of this period, outside of the usual random trivia and general World War II history. So it is little surprise that I found it engrossing to be given a first-person view of the disintegration of both an evil empire and an equally evil man.

The story recounts the final twelve days in the life of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz), watching him spend this time with a large entourage in an underground bunker. It is April 1945 and the Third Reich is on its last legs – the Americans and British are advancing from the West, while the Russians are closing in even quicker from the East. With constant bombing and artillery peppering the city, Berlin is a smoldering mess, with all buildings and houses being turned to rubble. The majority of the story takes place in the subterranean Fuhrerbunker, constructed underneath buildings in the government district of Berlin. Entry into this claustrophobic world is provided by following the character of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler’s personal secretary. She is hired by Hitler in the early 1940s and by this point in the war has obviously developed a sense of loyalty toward her boss. When much of the staff decides to leave Berlin before the city is overrun, Traudl declares that she will stick by Hitler until the end.

What the audience is able to witness in this claustrophobic world is the breakdown of a man who, in his own words in the film, singlehandedly conquered Europe. His generals and advisors recognize that there is no stopping the Allies at this point – Berlin is going to fall and it is going to happen very soon. Whether Hitler understands this is up for debate. At certain times he begins planning for his suicide, as if he has come to terms with the fact that the war is lost. At others, he plans counterattacks for units that don’t exist or plots strategies to prolong a war that moments ago he had declared he was done fighting. Since none of his generals have the courage to tell him the truth, Hitler operates in a pseudo-dream world in which he is never certain whether he should continue fighting or simply end it all. Along the way, a veritable who’s who of historical Nazi characters is seen. Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime girlfriend whom he marries just before both commit suicide. Joseph Goebbels, a loyal Nazi until the end. Goebbels’ wife Marga, who performs acts that are enough to make anyone sick at their stomach. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS who begins secretly planning to negotiate with the Allies in order to secure advantageous terms for himself and other high ranking party members. Albert Speer, the architect turned war production chief.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s attempt to tell this compelling story was not received warmly by everyone in his home country. As is understandably the case, depictions of this period in German history have remained controversial ever since the war ended. The government has tightly regulated the ability of artists and the media to create portrayals of Hitler and the Nazi party. Although these sentiments may not have been as strong as in the initial post-war years, these unofficial (and in some cases, official) prohibitions remained applicable even in 2003. In making Downfall, Hirschbiegel directly challenged one of the most significant of these remaining restrictions – depicting a realistic, German-speaking Adolf Hitler as the lead character in a film. As if this would not be controversial enough, the way in which Hitler is portrayed would draw even greater fury.

Evidently, much of Germany was not yet prepared for a film to show the psychopathic leader as someone capable of being every bit as human as the average person. The furor arose over the personal approach taken in telling the story of Hitler’s final days. To be certain, there are plenty of maniacal moments – bone-chilling sequences in which he casually discusses executions and deaths of his own German citizens. But there are also moments when the mass murder is portrayed as caring and at times quite charming.

Where I come down in assessing the film is obvious. I choose it as my number one for the year, so these are obviously not issues that affected my appreciation of it. But I can appreciate where the reaction of a large section of the German population was coming from. Bruno Ganz’s chilling portrayal of Hitler at times does border on showing him as a sympathetic figure. This is not the prototypical depiction of Hitler, a madman who does nothing but plot genocide and war crimes. In this film he is also seen patting young German boys on the head, receiving children like a favorite uncle, or showing compassion for the females stuck with him under the Chancellery. It is understandable that some might see this as unjustly creating sympathy for Hitler, depicting his final twelve days in the bunker as some kind of heroic trip toward martyrdom. For me, though, the fleshing out of Adolf Hitler on a personal level only made him even more disturbing. The fact that someone this charismatic could move from patting children on the head one moment, to in the next instant condemning the entire civilian population of Berlin to death is shocking. It is an unnerving and powerful juxtaposition. The other striking dynamic to the film is Hirschbiegel’s portrayal of those around Hitler. It is shocking how even generals who know that the war is lost, refuse to turn their back on the man that has lead them to this point of destruction. There is a scene in the film when Hitler is told that an army led by General Steiner will not be able to attack as he ordered. Hitler then declares that the Army has failed him and that he is finished with it all – in so many words, he tells them that they are on their own from there on out. And even then, a number of generals refuse to abandon the man.

The performance from Ganz is stunning. Even if one is turned off by the subject matter of the film, or completely disagrees with the method of storytelling, I don’t think anyone can deny the level of Ganz’s achievement. Aside from the similarities in physical appearance, Ganz also spent time studying a rare audio recording of Hitler in order to mimic his actual voice and speech patterns. This is not an easy performance to pull off as there is a risk of being too over the top, of playing Hitler as a caricature of the arm-waving, spittle-flying orator at the podium that everyone pictures when his name is mentioned. Ganz embraces this image at times, but adds enough nuances to keep from approaching campy territory. And Ganz’s is not the only standout role. If Carinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels isn’t enough to horrify you, then I don’t know what will. The way that she justifies giving her children cyanide is enough to make even the most coldhearted viewer squirm.

Outside of Ganz, what ultimately makes the film work for me is the style adopted by Hirschbiegel. Even though we know that the story is unfolding over the course of nearly two weeks, the action has a real-time feel to it. So many things are taking place in such a short period of time, and in such a confined area, and Hirschbiegel never lets the audience forget it. Cuts between characters and scenes – including some sequences taking place on the war-torn streets of Berlin – come quickly and one on top of the other, building tension for a story that has an ending that everyone already knows.

I’ll be interested to see how others assess this one. I find it unsettling in content, but unbelievably compelling in its execution.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 2004: This was a toss up for me between my actual choice and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. I know that I rate The Aviator a bit higher than most – I actually rank it as my #3 or #4 favorite Scorsese film – but we all know that personal taste is going to play a role at various points in this countdown. It’s interesting to see Marty use such a bright, slick production style. Outside of these two at the top, other favorites for the year include: Collateral (Michael Mann), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood), Sideways (Alexander Payne), Bad Education (Pedro Almodovar), and Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston).

Not exactly a banner year, in my estimation, but solid.


  1. Good choice, Dave. For me if it were between Downfall and Aviator it wouldn't be close because I found the Scorsese to be a bit of a dud. For me the real choice is between Hirschbiegel's film and Yoji Yamada's The Hidden Blade, a refreshingly humanistic samurai film from a late-blooming master, and Bruno Ganz's performance makes the difference in Downfall's favor.

    I agree with you that 2004 doesn't measure up to the surrounding years, but I'll try a top ten anyway:

    1. Downfall
    2. The Hidden Blade
    3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson)
    4. Sideways
    5. Million Dollar Baby
    6. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright)
    7. Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow)
    8. Warriors of Heaven and Earth (He Ping)
    9. The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
    10.Maria Full of Grace

  2. Superb review Dave of a very controversial movie. The director has treaded a very explosive territory and come out succesfully, to say the least.

    "the fleshing out of Adolf Hitler on a personal level only made him even more disturbing." - Exactly. The point is that evil is not alien to us. It is within us. As Huston says in Chinatown, given the right circumstances, Man is capable of doing anything. Looking at Hitler in this film truly makes us understand how commonplace evil is.

    My favorites:

    Before Sunset (Linklater)
    Finding Neverland (Forster)
    Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Tarantino)
    Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood)
    The Aviator (Scorsese)
    The Incredibles (Bird)
    The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (Hillenburg)
    The Terminal (Spielberg)
    10 On Ten (Kiarostami)
    Born Into Brothels (Briski, Kauffman)
    The Case Of The Grinning Cat (Marker)
    The Ninth Day (Schlondorff)
    Downfall (Hirschbiegel)
    The Motorcycle Diaries (Salles)
    Fahrenheit 9/11 (Moore)
    Hotel Rwanda (George)
    Hyderabad Blues 2 (Kukunoor)
    Bad Education (Almodovar)
    Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi)
    Love And Poetry (Lagier)
    The Sea Inside (Amenabar)
    Mouse Heaven (Anger)
    Our Music (Godard)
    A Very Long Engagement (Jeunet)

  3. Dave and Samuel, I would have to say that 2004 was an absolutely tremendous year in film, but perhaps that's because I chose some other films, all of which make a case for uniformed excellence. Any one of seven or eight films could rightfully be #1, but I'm going to have to agree with you on your #1 choice, and commend your "compelling" choice. For one reason or another I have seen this film several more times than any other on this round-up, and have enjoyed the numerous you tube take offs on Ganz's "stunning" performance, which just may well be teh film of the decade. Admittedly one scene disturbed me more than any other, and that was the murder of Goebeel's family with cynanide tablets. But yes, I know the film was hugely controversial within Germany, but Hershbiegel did it full justice. It's the definitive film on this most renowned psychopath, and as you say it properly humanizes Hitler.

    My Own #1 Film of 2004:

    Downfall (Hershbiegel; Germany)


    Dogville (Von Trier; Denmark)
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry; USA)
    Rois et Reine (Despletchen; France)
    Sideways (Payne; USA)
    Moolaade (Sembene; Senegal)
    Vera Drake (Leigh; UK)
    Phantom of the Opera (Schumacher; USA; UK)
    The Libertine (Dunmore; UK)
    The Return (Zvyagintsev; Russia)
    Springtime in a Small Town (Ki-Duk; S. Korea)
    A Very Long Engagement (Jeunet; France)
    Brothers (Blier; Denmark)
    The Aviator (Scorsese; USA)
    Nobody Knows (Kore-Eda; Japan)
    The Ister (Barison; Ross)
    House of the Flying Daggers (Yimou; China)
    2046 (Kar-Wei; Hong Kong)
    Maria Full of Grace (Marston; USA, Columbia)
    Finding Neverland (Forster; USA)
    Turtles Can Fly (Ghobadi; Iran)
    Bad Education (Almodovar; Spain)

  4. Well, again Dave, you have selected a film I have not seen, but I admit it sounds like a very interesting work, this in no part due to your review. My own favorite was the documentary “Born into Brothels.”

    And the rest…

    The Aviator
    Finding Neverland
    Million Dollar Baby
    Hotel Rwanda

  5. Very interesting results. I didn't expect as much consensus on this one, but shows how wrong I am. I'm glad to see that others find it as great as I do. Like I said in the review, I can understand the controversy in Germany, but ultimately I don't think the film shows a sympathetic Hitler.

    Samuel - I haven't seen The Hidden Blade, so thanks for another recommendation

    JAFB - I agree with your assessment completely. It makes things even scarier when you realize how "normal" in everyday life some of the most evil people are.

    Sam - Thanks for the compliments. I would agree that this one would have to rank high on a decades list. I'm certain it will be on my own when WitD gets to the 2000s.

    John - I think that you would like Downfall. As you can see in this comments section, a lot of people consider it one of the finest films of the decade. As for your #1 choice, I have only seen parts of it. It's hard for me to compare documentaries to feature films, but it certain was compelling stuff that I saw.

  6. Very interesting choice. I first "saw" it in the famed You Tube clips that Sam mentions, but Ganz's performance is strong enough that when I finally saw the whole film it erased the memory of those hard-to-forget parodies.

    My own pick for 2004 would be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, maybe Charlie Kaufman's finest moment and still the only Michel Gondry picture I've seen that can stand toe-to-toe with his brilliant music videos.

  7. Sam J., I would have spoken more respectfully of 2004 had I remembered Vera Drake and A Very Long Engagement. Those are strong films that you can take as my 11 and 12 for this year.

  8. Dave, must admit I haven't seen this one although I have been meaning to do so for a while. Your review makes it sound even more essential.

    I'm not sure if you would take 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' as being a 2004 or 2005 release? In the UK it came out in 2005 (though it never got much of a run in cinemas here), but in the US it was released at the very end of 2004. It would be my favourite for whichever year it falls into - as I mentioned in my comment for 2003, I think this is a great period for Sean Penn and this must be one of his finest performances.

    However, if 'Assassination' counts as 2005 then I'd go for 'A Very Long Engagement' or 'The Aviator' for 2004.

    My other favourites are:
    The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    Finding Neverland
    The Incredibles
    Garden State
    The Passion of the Christ
    Before Sunset
    Super Size Me
    Being Julia
    Ladies in Lavender
    Enduring Love

  9. Judy - If you're at all interested in history, particularly of the WWII era, then I would almost guarantee that you will like the film. I was going to see say that you would certainly "enjoy" the film, but it's not exactly one to turn to for diverting entertainment. :)

  10. One of the best films of the last twenty years, period. Bruno Ganz gave a one in a lifetime performance as Hitler. It was obscene that he didn't get an Oscar or this magnificent film was totally overlooked by Hollywood.

    It is a true masterpiece. Perhaps Ganz's sublime portrayal as Hitler as a broken man, as opposed to the demon of popular imagination didn't sit well with the overall viewpoint of cinemagoers.

    It doesn't matter because this film will be talked about, long after the sickly likes of "Twilight" have been relegated to oblivion.

  11. I haven't seen this one yet and never ever heard about the name even. But your positive review is driving me towards this movie and I am excited about it. I hope it will come up to my expectation and have a great time watching this movie.