DOWNFALL (DER UNTERGANG). 2004. DIRECTED BY OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL. STARRING BRUNO GANZ, ALEXANDRA MARIA LARA, CORINNA HARFOUCH, JULIANE KOHLER AND ULRICH MATTHES. REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
A film that makes you weep for Hitler has got to be one powerful piece of film-making. And I wasn’t the only one crying openly for history’s most notorious figure and his sad, lonely death in the bunker. Others viewers around me (okay, admittedly most of the blubberers were female like myself) were reaching for the paper tissues too, and not discreetly either. We didn’t care who saw us.
The film was being screened in one of the local libraries as part of the 2015 Dublin History Festival. For two-and-a-half hours, it kept us all enthralled, literally glued to our seats. The movie is so gripping that from start to finish it was almost like being down in that spacious but still claustrophobic underground tomb with Hitler and his bunker-companions in the last days of the Third Reich.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare this to be the best historical film I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve already taken the precaution of purchasing the DVD and I can say with confidence that I’ll be watching DOWNFALL until I can recite it by heart. (Yes, even though it’s in German and I don’t speak the language beyond a bit of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet…!) Okay, now that the love-in is officially complete, let me fill in you on what happens in the film.
The Berlin portrayed in DOWNFALL has been decimated by Allied bombs. It’s April 1945 and World War Two is nearing its end, after the loss overall of fifty million lives. The city of Berlin is in ruins. Civilians and the wounded are frightened and hungry. Those who were able to mobilise themselves have already fled the city.
To make things worse, the Russians are coming. The Russian soldiers are gradually closing in around Berlin in a circle and it won’t be long before they’re here. Everywhere you look, the once-beautiful city has been devastated. It’s a chillingly realistic portrayal.
Meanwhile, as the enemy draws closer, Hitler is in the bunker with his long-time mistress Eva Braun, his beloved German shepherd Blondi, his aides and generals and his secretaries. The film was partially based on the diaries of Hitler’s private secretary Traudl Junge, ironically the one character in the film I actively disliked. She was too wishy-washy, she always seemed to be running away from situations and her real-life self appeared at the end of the film and said that she didn’t know the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities. No-one watching the film really seemed to believe her. Me, I don’t know either way.
Hitler is superbly played by Bruno Ganz, in what surely has to be the performance of a lifetime. In appearance, he is uncannily similar to the small, shuffling once-powerful leader of the Nazi Party. Hitler by this stage appears bowed, almost broken by comparison with his bigger, taller, bulkier generals and aides. He has the neat toothbrush moustache which Hitler apparently cultivated to disguise his unusually large nostrils. He also has the jet-black cow’s-lick we’re so familiar with. It falls forward over his forehead when he flies into one of his legendary rages, which happens frequently in the film.
Eva Braun is a bright, brittle character whose forced, almost manic, gaiety clearly masks her increasing desperation at her and her lover’s situation. Hitler does not appear tender or loving towards her in the film. He is kinder to and more considerate of the secretaries, especially Traudl, than he is to and of the woman he marries in a hurried underground ceremony in the last few hours of his life.
For Eva, this wedding ceremony, shoddy and unsatisfactory as it might have been and as far from your average woman’s dream wedding as it’s possible to get, is the realisation of her life’s ambition. She remains devoted to her Fuhrer right up to the moment they commit suicide together in their private quarters in the bunker. I trust it’s not a spoiler to bring that up…!
Death for the pair becomes inevitable when Hitler’s armies lose battle after battle and their enemies gain more and more ground. Hitler becomes despairing when he realises that his generals are failing him on every front. The personal betrayals of Himmler and Goering are, for him, the worst betrayals of all and each fresh revelation stabs at him like a dagger to the heart.
Goebbels stands by him to the death, however. His wife Magda, as fanatically committed to National Socialism as her husband, kills all six of their young children in their bedroom in the bunker because, she claims, she doesn’t want them to grow up in a world in which all their ideals and visions have been destroyed. These scenes are chilling and deeply upsetting.
Hitler himself is crushed by the inability of his generals to carry out his vision of the perfect world. If his orders had simply been carried out, he reasons, everything would have been okay. It all comes down to orders. But as it is, he is surrounded by backstabbers and incompetents and weak men who want to run to the enemy to make deals to save their own skin.
How can he lead under these conditions? What is the point of his giving orders if they’re not properly carried out? He can see that there is no longer any point and so he throws in the towel. It’s like that moment on the TITANIC when even the band stops playing and makes a run- well, a swim- for it. Everyone is shellshocked, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Mind you, the unrealistic nature of some of these ‘orders’ at the end and Hitler’s staunch refusal to admit that the war was lost often had his staff looking at each other the way Wayland Smithers in THE SIMPSONS looks when Mr. Burns gives him a particularly bizarre and ridiculous instruction…!
As well as Traudl Junge’s memoir, UNTIL THE FINAL HOUR, the film is also based on Joachim Fest’s fantastic book, INSIDE HITLER’S BUNKER- THE LAST DAYS OF THE THIRD REICH (2004). I read this book in 2013 and I’ve thought about it frequently since. I’ve thought about the actual bunker mostly, portrayed in the film as being similar in places to an underground subway or public bathroom. How spooky it would be to take a tour of such a place, though of course there’s nothing left now to take a tour of.
DOWNFALL has been described as ‘the most important movie ever made about World War Two.’ I’ll go one further and say that it’s possibly the most crucial historical film ever made. Check out what happens to the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun after they commit suicide, and watch carefully the scene in which a tired and emotional Fuhrer awards medals to children- yes, children!- who have seen off the Russian tanks with bazookas. It’s almost unreal, even though we know it happened.
Just in case the viewer is inclined to take too kindly a view of Hitler, given the sympathetic way he is portrayed by Bruno Ganz, an excellent actor, he kind of blows it for himself with his comments about the Jews, six million of whom he murdered. No matter how badly things have turned out overall, he’s still glad he ‘cleansed Germany of the Jewish poison.’ It’s frightening how much he really seems to believe that this was the right thing for him to do. The only thing for him to do. The whole film is a masterpiece of cinema. You have to watch it. It’s utterly mind-blowing. What more can I say…?
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based performance poet, novelist, film blogger, sex blogger and short story writer. She has given more than 200 performances of her comedy sex-and-relationship poems in different venues around Dublin, including The Irish Writers’ Centre, The International Bar, Toners’ Pub (Ireland’s Most Literary Pub), the Ha’penny Inn, Le Dernier Paradis at the Trinity Inn and The Strokestown Poetry Festival.
Her articles, short stories and poems have appeared in The Metro-Herald newspaper, Ireland’s Big Issues magazine, The Irish Daily Star, The Irish Daily Sun and The Boyne Berries literary journal. In August 2014, she won the ONE LOVELY BLOG award for her (lovely!) horror film review blog. She is addicted to buying books and has been known to bring home rain-washed tomes she finds on the street and give them a home.
She is the proud possessor of a pair of unfeasibly large bosoms. They have given her- and the people around her- infinite pleasure over the years. She adores the horror genre in all its forms and will swap you anything you like for Hammer Horror or JAWS memorabilia. She would also be a great person to chat to about the differences between the Director’s Cut and the Theatrical Cut of The Wicker Man. You can contact her at:
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