Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler
Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge
Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels
Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels
Juliane Köhler as Eva Braun
Heino Ferch as Albert Speer
Christian Berkel as Prof. Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck
Matthias Habich as Prof. Dr. Werner Haase
Thomas Kretschmann as SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein
Michael Mendl as General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling
André Hennicke as SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke
Ulrich Noethen as Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler
Birgit Minichmayr as Gerda Christian
Rolf Kanies as General der Infanterie Hans Krebs
Justus von Dohnanyi as General der Infanterie Wilhelm Burgdorf
Dieter Mann as Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel
Christian Redl as Generaloberst Alfred Jodl
Götz Otto as Adjutant, SS-Hauptsturmführer Otto Günsche
Thomas Limpinsel as Heinz Linge, Kammerdiener
Thomas Thieme as Martin Bormann
Gerald Alexander Held as Walter Hewel
Donevan Gunia as Peter Kranz
Bettina Redlich as Constanze Manziarly
Heinrich Schmieder as Rochus Misch
Anna Thalbach as Hanna Reitsch
Dietrich Hollinderbäumer as Generalfeldmarschall Robert Ritter von Greim
A powerful and detailed portrayal of Hitler and the Nazi party during their dying days, Downfall could very well be one of the most important films of the year.
As World War II comes to an end, the Russian army closes in on Berlin, and in a bunker below the city, the last days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) and the Third Reich are seen through the eyes of everyone from his personal secretary to his lover Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) to his generals, soldiers, and even the beleaguered citizens of Berlin.
The Allied viewpoint on World War II has been well documented from American, French and British films, always showing the Nazis as ruthless and harsh villains, but for whatever reason, Germany has never given their own point-of-view. Their part of the equation has mostly been ignored in films to the point of them almost pretending that the war and their part in it never happened. But honestly, who would blame them considering the atrocities they committed and how poorly it ended for them?
Oliver (Das Experiment) Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (retitled for American audiences as Downfall) never disputes or denies the war crimes committed by Hitler and his followers during the biggest war, instead giving a very different look at the dictator and a detailed breakdown on how his vast empire was brought down while he maintained control over so many people.
Based on biographies by those who were there, Downfall begins with Adolf Hitler hiring four secretaries to take down his memoirs as he barricades himself into a bunker under Berlin. During her time in the bunker, one of the secretaries, Frau Junge, was able to see the worst of what happened as Hitler and his men frantically tried to find a way out of their bleak situation during the waning days of WWII. Much of the film’s first third consists of Hitler meeting with advisors and generals to plan a strategy even as some of his generals in the field are ignoring his orders and immediately being branded as traitors.
Like Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot, Hirschbiegel’s film expects the viewer to put themselves in the Nazis’ shoes. Considering the brutality they committed during the Holocaust, it’s very hard to sympathize with any of them, but sympathy seems to be the furthest from Hirschbiegel’s intentions, as he takes a very clinical and non-biased view of the events that took place during Hitler’s last days. It’s almost surprising that it takes over an hour for anyone to even mention Jews, something that would seem too big to readily ignore.
Watching how the people in the bunker react to Hitler and the situation is what makes Downfall such a unique film experience. As Hitler tries to avoid his imminent defeat, his soldiers alternate between drinking and having parties to planning ways of committing suicide. The matter-of-fact way suicide is discussed as an option among those in the bunker is the creepiest part of Downfall, since it’s hard to believe that one man could have such a great impact and influence on so many people.
The only reason it is believable is because of Bruno Ganz’s amazing performance as the aging Hitler, creating a full character study both as the cold and cruel man one would expect, mixing it with a weakness and frailty that is surprising. He’s a man defeated at one moment and a ranting and raving lunatic the next. Just as you begin to feel even slightly sorry for him, he gives you reason to loathe him by showing disrespect not only for his advisors, but also his people, expecting his loyal supporters to commit suicide rather than surrender or be captured. As far as Hitler was concerned, it was only right that the people of his country should be ready to lay down their lives in support of his cause than to surrender to the Russians. The fact that Hitler would be so open with his own plans to commit suicide, knowing that he would be deserting his people, makes him that much more despicable.
The movie makes it clear that the Germans, as a whole, are a proud people, ready to lay down their lives than to accept the fact that they may have been wrong. Sadly, this pride also meant the needless loss of life to those who actually were innocent. Hitler’s confidante Goebells is readily accepted as a monster, depicted as one would expect, but his wife isn’t much better, and it’s surprising that they have a large family of children with singing voices that could offer the Von Trapps some competition. They are just some of the innocents who become “collateral damage,” due to the sins of their father.
The power of Ganz’s performance makes it hard to single out any another single great performance, but that’s only because the entire cast is exemplary in bringing the needed realism to the events depicted. Juliane Kohler and Alexandra Maria Lara are both great as Eva Braun and Hitler’s secretary respectively, bringing a much-needed women’s viewpoint to the typical war drama.
As the film jumps between the different characters, ably showing how the war affected different groups, it mixes heavy and dramatic dialogue sequences with realistic bombing sequences, and though the movie is long at over two and a half hours, one never is allowed to get bored.
More than anything, the movie shows how Germany is trying hard to put the worst chapter of their history behind them, in hopes that maybe the rest of the world will finally forgive the country for the sins of their forefathers. Downfall is certainly a good start.
The Bottom Line:
Downfall will likely leave those who watch it with mixed emotions. You can’t sympathize with Hitler or his followers, but watching Hitler’s final days helps understand how this madman was able to turn Germany into a countrywide cult. Needless to say, this deeply thought-provoking look at the death of a regime should be the catalyst for some much-needed dialogue before something like that ever happens again.