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Der Untergang (2004)

Downfall, The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich (USA), Der Untergang - Hitler und das Ende des 3. Reichs

April 1945, a nation awaits its...

Directed by:

Marco Tullio Giordana

Oliver Hirschbiegel

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 150 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Country: Germany, Italy, Italy

During the Third Reich, a state propaganda machine had saturated the German people with a vision of their Führer as a romanticised folk hero and loving father of the nation – so when Adolf Hitler and the Reich came to an end in 1945 and Germany was waking up to the grim reality of what had happened in the name of National Socialism, it no longer seemed appropriate for Hitler’s image to be projected in the dreamhouse of cinema. While he has been analysed by academics, exposed by documentarians, and argued over by historians, Hitler has remained a taboo topic for German feature films – and until the release of ‘Downfall’ in 2004, the last time the man had been portrayed in German cinema was a staggering forty eight years earlier, in G.W. Pabst’s ‘Der Letzte Akt’.

“I make so many mistakes when I dictate”, Hitler (Bruno Ganz) tells Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) in the 1942 opening of ‘Downfall’. The context is innocent enough – he is interviewing the young woman for a post as his private secretary – but the irony of the dictator’s words reverberates through the rest of the film, set three years later during his final days in the bunker beneath the German Chancellery, as he ignores all good advice and military reality, blames his own failings on everyone else, brooks no dissent and wilfully condemns his own populace to unnecessary (if sometimes willing) death.

Woven from ‘Until the Final Hour’ (2001), an eyewitness account of Hitler’s last days by Traudl Junge herself, and from ‘Inside Hitler’s Bunker’ (2002), the best-selling book by Berlin historian Joachim Fest, the rich detail of Bernd Eichinger’s screenplay brings the studied feel of a documentary to the film – and in one sequence, the notorious photo of Hitler’s final public appearance, pinning medals on a parade of young children in military uniform, is painstakingly reconstructed and brought to life.

At the same time, director Oliver Hirschbiegel brings from his previous film ‘Das Experiment’ (2001) a mood of claustrophobia and entrapment that suits not just the bunker itself, filmed with suffocating tightness, but also the inescapable grip which Nazism held over the German people, caught between testing their loyalty to its self-destructive limits, or paying the lethal price for their treachery. In this way, the twelve years of Hitler’s dictatorship are compressed into the twelve intense days at their end, as a country finds itself straining under the inhuman logic of its own guiding ideology.

There is enough incident and character in the many narrative strands of ‘Downfall’ to fill a film twice the length – but at its concrete core is a contrast between the downfall of a society ruled by perverse disorder, and the beginnings of a new Germany. Hitler and Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) have come to believe their own propaganda – but others like Speer (Heino Ferch) are starting to face the truth and secretly ignore Hitler’s commands. Doctors devote their time to preparing poisons and assisting suicides, and there is a chilling reference to the illegal experiments performed by an SS medic – but other doctors like Schenck (Christian Berkel) risk their own lives to help the sick and the wounded, and reject both suicides and executions as madness. Goebbels’ wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch), declared by Hitler to be Germany’s most courageous mother, kills her own children one by one, and Hitler himself, the ‘father’ of the nation, mercilessly wills the annihilation of all Germany – yet the film’s final sequence, in which Traudl and a young boy elude the advancing Red Army by posing as mother and son, promises the return of more normal family relations. Lastly there is Traudl herself, an “enthusiastic Nazi” by her own admission (in the voice-over which book-ends the film), who now looks upon her younger self (“this child”) with a mixture of anger, contempt and disbelief, and struggles, like Germany, to forgive herself.

It's Got: Simply extraordinary performances, especially from Bruno Ganz as Hitler; scenes of Berlin under bombardment from the Russians, all filmed in St Petersburg (the Russian city in fact bombarded in the Second World War by the Germans); a documentary-like attention to historical fact and period detail coupled with a stifling sense of claustrophobia; and a chilling scene of infanticide that is almost too painfully real to watch, and yet encapsulates perfectly the perversion of Nazism.

It Needs: Not to be seen by anyone looking for a fun night out.

Alternatives:

Das Boot, Das Experiment, Der Letzte Akt, The Pianist

Summary

This outstanding 'underground' film crams all the madness and perversity of the Third Reich into twelve days in a claustrophobic bunker.

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