“Downfall” aka “Der Untergang” (2004)

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By Jerome Reuter

For over five decades, countless films have been made about World War II. It’s quite possibly the most diverse group of narratives you’ll find in film history. You’ll find everything from melodramas, action films, comedies, and even some entries in the exploitation subgenre. It’s always an interesting story to tell, from many different viewpoints and scenarios. There’s one that comes to mind however, that really stands out. Downfall, (aka Der Untergang) released in 2004 is a German film, depicting the last days of Hitler’s Third Reich. The film is based on several first hand accounts of those who were there, including Albert Speer, as well as Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Yunge.

The film has achieved notoriety, mainly due to several Internet memes of Hitler’s breakdown in the middle of the film. All Internet trolling aside, there’s a reason why this film sticks out in my mind. In my opinion, it’s one of the first German interpretations of the war, to break from the narrative style that had been repeated so often. Films such as Stalingrad, Das Boot, and even As Far As My Feet Can Carry Me, all have a similar theme to them. You have the common soldiers in the field, who become disenfranchised with the current form of government. Much of these films attempt to show these characters as sympathetic as possible. Much of the controversy surrounding this one, according to one German film critic, was showing the monster as a human being. Which therein lays the challenge, giving a face to one of the darkest parts of human history, as well as someone who deserves no sympathy.

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It makes perfect sense that the portrayal of Hitler is assigned to Bruno Ganz. He’s somewhat a figurehead of the new German cinema movement. He had been in such films as Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre, as well as Wim Wender’s Wings Of Desire. In Downfall, here he plays the part of the madman—to perfection. You really see the inner workings of a megalomaniac at work, and the paranoia that comes from being isolated deep within a bunker.

Up until this point, there had only been one performance that rivaled this. An film simply entitled The Bunker, where Hitler was played by Anthony Hopkins. While that one was a brilliant film, it still relied mostly on Hopkins to animate the story. It’s the events surrounding Hitler in Downfall, which make this a memorable work.

Because this film is about the final days of Berlin, we get to see the on goings contained within the city. One might expect a film like this to have extravagant battle sequences, and scenes of heart stopping action. However, this film takes the high road and leaves them out. Instead, were shown the humanity that lie in some, and the complete absence in others. I’m a firm believer that a good film, knows how to show contrast, to further define characters, story, and theme. Here, it’s the residents of this city of the damned that drive this film home. We’re given a glimpse of those who still follow the fanatical teachings of their leader, and those who know the end is near, and want to see the nightmare bring itself to an inevitable conclusion. Watching the frightened civilians is a sharp contrast to what’s going on beneath city streets in the bunker.

I believe this film addresses something we forget all to often. The acts committed during this time period weren’t the work of monsters. These were the actions of human beings, who had a choice between right and wrong. It’s the films conclusion however, that reveals the shallowness, the vileness, and the mindset of those involved within the inner circle.

In conclusion, I feel this work doesn’t glorify the old regime in any way. This film tells the truth, as ugly as it may be. It’s an honest work, and it’s well executed.

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