View Full Version : Downfall: A Review (chris Knipp)

Chris Knipp
03-14-2005, 03:38 AM
Oliver Hirschbiegel: Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004)

Not much fun in this Hell

Review by Chris Knipp

The Germans have finally made a World War II movie with Hitler in it as a main character, hitherto a taboo for them, like showing Queen Elizabeth in a movie for the English, presumably for different reasons. Hirshbiegel's film gives us Hitler's last days in an unpalatable mix of generals, women, children murdered to save them from a world without National Socialism, Berlin crumbling around the Führer's meandering bunker, booms and crashes echoing around the auditorium.

The result is a harrowing and powerful but also plodding. It's as if director Hirschbiegel was so focused on just getting all the terror, gloom, and horror of it down on film he didn't step back to breathe. There's not much sense of pacing or rhythm. There's a steady unwinding, of course -- after all this is the devolution to end all devolutions -- but there's not much suspense or sense of calculated contrast between successive scenes. Maybe there isn't any room for art in such a story. But then you have to ask why Downfall was made, and the only answer is to provide some kind of catharsis for German viewers.

The director has epic ambitions. He not only covers the moods of the bunker on every level from general down to the lowest orderly (it's "Upstairs Downstairs" all played below), but also takes us up to street level where Berlin crumbles as the Russians move in, and it dives through battlefield hospitals teeming with moaning, screaming wounded and grizzled, exhausted surgeons sawing off limbs. (Why does the camera ritually shake every time there's a big explosion? It's a fake-looking effect.) We see so many people pop cyanide pills and blow their brains out it becomes almost routine. And we are witnesses to the kind of terrible battlefield gore we saw in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and more recently in Jeunet's Very Long Engagement.

But in fact, in Downfall's foreground, inside Hitler's bunker, there's no real action except the decision to do nothing, not to yield, to go down with the ship. This is the Endgame, the checkmate: the "king" is cornered. There's a lot of talk about escaping or surrendering but neither is going to happen. It all stays in the bunker till the end. Consequently the movie is character-driven, and succeeds best in impersonating known figures.

Most importantly, Hirschbiegel has engaged a marvelous actor, Bruno Ganz, to play a fully rounded version of the doomed Hitler. Over-saturated color and ill judged sickly lighting -- however accurate a reproduction the latter may be of the underground setting -- make the generals look like waxworks, but Ganz's Hitler is three-dimensional and has all the qualities ever attributed to him. He screams and yelps at the generals in a voice uncannily right, he's soft as a puppy-dog with women and children; and there are all stages of madness and folly and denial in between. Ganz can do as much with his face seen from the side as he can do with his stooped exhausted body, his twittering left hand hidden behind his back, and his voice rasping and cawing as he curses his generals, brags of dealing with the Jews, and condemns the German people to die -- but mild and soothing to the strangely cheerful Eva Braun, and sweet and forgiving as he hires a secretary. This is no mere impersonation: it makes Hitler real and complex.

That's disturbing to many viewers, especially Jewish ones, who have protested this movie should not even have been made; that even to look Hitler in the eye and see a human being taints the memory of the millions who died in the camps. But this is wrong. We don't need a cardboard man to know the Nazis were the personification of evil. The hard truth of evil's banality -- and commonality -- was dramatized by Hannah Arendt's reportage of the Eichmann trial in 1963.

After suicides have happened and corpses have been torched and officers have left to fight over whether to surrender, Downfall narrates a terrifying escape by several women, including Traudl Junge, Hitler's young secretary, beyond the Russian soldiers and out of Berlin. There's a little poetry -- perhaps the only moment when the movie sings in any conventional sense -- when Junge, already seen in Heller and Schmiderer's documentary, Blind Spot, two years ago (to which this film owes much), escapes hand in hand with a small blond boy and cycles cross-country with him under a bright clear open sky (escapes, as the documentary shows, to a lifetime of guilt). Finally here is contrast, a flight from the bunker that sets off the grim experiences we've witnessed inside it.

Unfortunately, though, we've already seen so many cinematic depictions of depraved Nazi officers getting drunk amid naked girls (a classic version is Visconti's lugubrious and cloying The Damned) that even when Eva Braun is one of the celebrants there's a numbed sense of déjà vu. Outside the bunker, up above, the dark sequences of mere children in soldier's uniforms playing the doomed hero are disgusting and heartbreaking, but that was an aspect of the final days of the Nazis that had its ultimate cinematic expression long ago in Berhhard Wicki's powerful 1959 anti-war movie, Die Brücke. No, the only thing that makes Downfall different is the bunker, and Hirschbiegel might have done better to have stayed down there and never let us out. Hitler certainly never got out, except to be incinerated so the Allies wouldn't get his corpse. This is not a great movie, but it's a powerful one. It deserves to be seen, if you can handle the claustrophobic nightmares it may give you.

03-14-2005, 04:28 AM
No, this is not a great film. You called it a "powerful one," but I wasn't overwhelmed by the programmatically staged noise and the manhem. I suggested in the brief comments I made in another thread that the film will do very well and its doing great. Olaf Möller, Film Comment's European-editor based in Germany, called it a "sickening exercise in ass-kissing and political indifference made for the entertainment of the prosecco-set."
Bruno Ganz does he best he can here with the more commercially inclined Oliver Hirschbiegel, but a more engaging experience is Sokurov's Moloch, a difficult yet rewarding film on Hitler.

Chris Knipp
03-14-2005, 01:16 PM
Thanks for mentioning Sokorov's Molokh. There are several other films that J. Hoberman mentions -- along with Molokh -- in his excellent Village Voice review of Downfall (http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0507,hoberman1,61095,20.html): "G.W. Pabst's 1955 The Last Ten Days...the 1973 Alec Guinness vehicle Hitler—The Last Ten Days, ... Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's monumental Hitler, a Film From Germany" and of course there is Shoah, all of which could be considered much more essential viewing for a student of the war. Unfortunately I must confess I have not seen a single one of these other films you and Hoberman allude to, hence my failure to make comparisons of them with Oliver Hirschbiegel's "more commercial"and "mainstream" vehicle. I did mention Wicki's Die Brücke, which I did see and which in fact had a huge impact on me as a young person.

03-16-2005, 04:05 AM
If Oliver Hirschbiegel was a more "serious" filmmaker it would've been interesting to examine/compare Downfall with his previous international release, Das Experiment. I'm not sure if you've seen it but I liked it quite a bit. That film was based on a novel (Black Box by Mario Giordono) which in turn was inspired from the Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) where average citizens were paid to role-play as Guards/Prisoners for a couple of weeks and it didn't go very well. Perhaps Hirschbiegel is interested in the psychology of power, and the way men who possess it deal with their emotions or it's merely a coincidence. Anyway, Mortiz Bleibtreu was in Das Experiment, a good German actor who was also in Fatih Akin's In July and Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run.

03-16-2005, 08:42 PM
LOL...nice Pic, P! Hitler almost looks sympathetic.

03-26-2005, 08:30 PM
This was Germany's submission to Oscar.

The official website (in English) is here ...

What is commendable?
-- Defnitely the technicalities of the film, e.g., the details, the cinematography, the lighting, the costume, etc.
-- I am also very impressed with the entire cast!
-- While some critics penned the director for NOT providing further insights to the thoughts/motivation of some characters, I actually applaud him for doing so ... by simply portraying the actions/events as they are ensures accuracy (as opposed to dramatization or wrong attribution of actions/events); it also allows the audience to interpret and figure on their own!

What may be problematic?
-- Sometimes, I do wonder if one is not familiar with all the historical figures involved, can they really keep track of all the characters that were featured, their ranks, their roles, etc as they watched this movie. Honestly, I gotta admit that occasionally, I wonder who is who, and what did they do or say earlier in the movie ... *guilty*
-- Also, while I like the contrast in activities between above earth and in the bunkers, I have to admit that at times, I feel that the movie is kind of long and slow ... I have no problems with 3 hours long movie, but I wonder if the pacing can be done better ...

-- An excellent film, worth watching! ... apart from the occasional slow pacing and too many characters (which I guess the director has no choice) ...

A curious question:
-- Was this the Best Film from Germany last year (in your opinion), or was this a strategic stance to submit for Oscar? If there was a better German film last year, please share with us the title of the film.

03-26-2005, 09:25 PM
Well, I think I've only seen 2 German films from 2004, this and Head-On, and you know which one I prefer. There was some controversy about the decision by the German academy but since Head-On had already won the Golden Bear (first German film in about two decades to do so), it died down quickly. Yes, Hollywood loves its W.W.II epics so it wasn't a surprise that Downfall made the final five even though I believe that it didn't deserve it.

Chris Knipp
04-11-2005, 10:44 PM
I actually missed Das Experiment. I would agree that Oliver Hirschbiegel is not a great (or as you put it a 'serious') filmmaker. Of course Downfall is historically remarkable in its thorough account of the last days in Hitler's bunker and for being a German depiction of Hitler as a character throughout a film, and the acting is excellent, yet all that just doesn't make this a good film. One could almost theorize that treating these events "straight" is a project that, as a way to make a really artistic film, is perhaps itself doomed. You never know, but literalness gets in the way of art.

oscar jubis
04-28-2005, 09:46 AM
A meticulous, focused, riveting depiction of the lives of the architects of the Third Reich during its final days, based on credible historical sources. In the process, there are glimpses of the suffering of the German masses, towards whom Downfall's Hitler expresses repugnance and contempt. I wouldn't cut a single one of its 150 minutes and I'm glad the filmmakers resisted any impulse to "art it up". Magnificently edited and featuring excellent performances from Bruno Ganz, Juliane Kholer as Eva Braun, and Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels.

Chris Knipp
04-28-2005, 02:40 PM
I wouldn't cut a single one of its 150 minutes and I'm glad the filmmakers resisted any impulse to "art it up". If you're alluding to my comments, I hope you don't think that better pacing and rhythm would be equivalent to (and your phrasing suggests it) "tarting it up." We substantially agree. . It's just that where you say "meticulous" I say "plodding." It almost seems sometimes as if people think there is something holy about Hitler's last days or that there is some kind of inviolable truth here; but in fact, actual eyewitnesses aren't that thick on the ground, as indicated by the heavy use of testimony from a secretary and another minor functionary. I can't agree that Downfall is "magnificently edited." The material is powerful and the movie is powerful and I said so. Downfall is relentless, compulsive viewing. It goes without saying, but we've all said it, that the performances, above all Ganz's, are terrific; and I said it should be seen. But the idea that it couldn't have been done any better from the overall directorial point of view I still can't grasp. If that's the case, then at least it need not be done again, and that could be a good thing!

It should be born in mind as the Chicago Reader's thumbnail reviews says, that "Unlike many movies about the Third Reich, the film makes scant mention of Europe's Jews." I feel that since the bunker POV is what the movie's about, more of the events on ground level was presented than was needed (since they didn't see all that from down there), though of course that stuff was good material -- for another movie.

05-05-2005, 05:46 AM
Downfall is a strange one, so far I have avoided seeing it but it has managed to do what no other foreign film has , it has had a 4 week run in the multiplex and is about to start its 5th.

Recently in the multipex's we've had The Sea Inside, Don't Move, The Chorus, 5x2 and only last year they had films like Zatoichi, Infernal Affairs, Hero, Love Me if You Dare, all commercial films and yet none of them had anywhere near the staying power of Downfall.

So far it has managed to hit the top 10 three times:

Week 1 - No 9
Week 2 - No10
Week 3 - No12
Week 4 - No 7

Most foreign films only last for a maximum of 2 weeks, some like "Hole in My Heart" even less. My question is, what is so special about Downfall?

It makes me wonder, good films like Maria Full of Grace, Head On, Turtles Can Fly etc are left to pretty much rot on the Art-house circuit, if they had the right backing would they do as well?

Cheers Trev.

Chris Knipp
05-05-2005, 01:26 PM
I should think "Hitler's last days" is sensational enough a phrase to be an explanation. It's less mainstream here but then, we were further from the War.

The movie's having a good run here but not in multiplexes. It's at the Landmark art house chain. Isn't "art house chain" an oxymoron, though? The original art houses were small and independent. Developing chains that show such films is a process of co-opting.

Hope you go and see it. You sound poised to support my argument that it's no masterpiece.

Howard Schumann
12-12-2005, 10:16 AM
DOWNFALL (Der Untergang)

Directed by Oliver Hirschbeigel (2004)

The most frightening things I can remember from my childhood in New York were the blackouts and air raid sirens during World War II and listening to the voice of Adolf Hitler on the radio. It was a voice that sent chills down my spine. That hypnotic voice, that chilling presence, is nowhere to be found in Oliver Hirschbeigel's Downfall, a powerful but novelistic account of the events that took place in Berlin during the final days of the Second World War. Bruno Ganz portrays the Führer as a broken and defeated man, stooped and palsied, raving about how his generals betrayed him, yet being kind to his wife Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler), his secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), and his dog Blondi. It is a strong performance and his character fascinates us, yet Ganz' fiery rants as the Führer seem to be overly studied, not emanating from the core of his being.

The film is based on Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest and the memoir Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller, and is shot mainly within the confines of a closed space that approximates the dimensions of the real bunker. In that oppressive atmosphere, Ganz recreates the physical deterioration and emotional instability of the Führer who remains steadfast while everything around him is crumbling. Although faced with certain defeat, soldiers are still being sent to their death while Hitler insists that "every square meter" of German territory must be defended or left behind as "scorched earth". Those that do not fight are shot on the spot as traitors.

The city, however, is unable to defend itself against the continuing onslaught of Russian troops. Although military men know that there is no hope, no one is willing to challenge the Führer's orders or attempt to seize power. Many opt for suicide or go on drinking binges to obscure the failure of the military effort, although by that time, one of Hitler's chief objectives had been achieved with the annihilation of two-thirds of European Jews. As Hitler's wife Eva Braun throws lavish parties, the sound of artillery shells and bombs shake the bunker's walls. Both Eva and Traudl are shown as being so infatuated with Hitler that they dismiss reports of military failure and imminent death. Juliane Kohler portrays Eva Braun as a decent but superficial young woman, thinking only of serving the Third Reich. Lara depicts Traudl as young, apolitical, and hopelessly naïve, the way Traudl views herself in her memoirs without ever discussing the impact her father's Nazi membership had on her life.

Hirschbeigel prides himself on his adherence to the truth and Downfall is, by and large, historically accurate. The film, however, singles out a few individuals for being "good Nazis" and does not always tell the entire story. One idealized is Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, who tells the Führer that he did not follow his orders to destroy the infrastructure in German cities. This did take courage, yet Speer's organizational genius is said to have prolonged the war for at least a year, with the consequent death of hundreds of thousands and widespread ruin. Hermann Fegelin, Eva Braun's brother-in-law is shown as being ready to question the fawning mentality of the German army, yet he was also a member of the Nazi SS, responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews. In another half truth, the doctor, Professor Schenk appears to be a selfless hero in treating the wounded, yet this was the same man who was responsible for the death of hundreds at Dachau during forced labor projects and medical experiments.

Despite its weaknesses, Downfall has a great deal of merit and it should be seen if only to appreciate the insanity of war and what can occur in a country where basic freedoms are denied. Of the many outstanding performances, two that deserve mention are Ulrich Matthes as the cold hearted Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbles and his wife Magda played by Corinna Harfouch. The sequence in which she calmly poisons her six children because she does not want them to grow up in a world without National Socialism are among the most horrifying I have ever seen. Another performance worthy of mention is that of 13-year old Donevan Gunia whose Peter Kranz represents the crumbling façade of the Hitler youth.

At the end, Hitler is a pathetic shell of his former self who refuses to admit his mistakes and begins to suffer from depression, spending his hours thinking of the best way to commit suicide. No compromise or surrender is ever contemplated though it might have saved thousands of lives. Hirschbeigel wants us to see that Hitler was just a flawed human being but human nonetheless. If this helps the German people to release feelings of guilt, it will have made a big contribution to world sanity. However, showing that Hitler had a human side does not help us to understand the man or his abhorrence of "the dirty and degrading chimera called conscience and morality," as well as "the burden of free will" and "personal responsibility" which he thought should only be left to those in positions of power.

Hitler may have been a good boss to his secretary and a kind husband but he never showed any signs of remorse when people died because of his actions. It was reported that Hitler used to laugh when Joseph Goebbels described the sufferings of the Jews. He once remarked that a guilty conscience was a Jewish invention. If he had some human qualities, they pale in significance with the breadth of his crimes that have attained an almost mythical dimension. In his devotion to achieving his ends through the use of unbridled physical strength and cruelty, he surpassed all his predecessors in his inhumanity and those are the terms in which he should be forever defined.


" For to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, to know you are beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters into the soul of the incurious seeker." - Samuel Beckett

"To have no past, no foreseeable future, only the steady pulse of a changeless present - how would that feel?" - John Banville

Chris Knipp
12-12-2005, 02:13 PM
It's brave and determined of you, Howard, to have soldiered through Downfall on your own so long after the big excitement over it has died down. I might not have seen it had not a friend wanted to go at the time when people were lining up for it. You've written a good and personally revealing review which covers a lot of the complex contents. Yes it is worth seeing, but as I've said repeatedly here I don't think it's ultimately that good a piece of work and as a movie, aesthetically I could never give it as high as a B+. I'm sure we agree on how we view the events of World War II, but I depart from you or disagree with you on your interpretation of actors' performances and the way some of the fiigures are represented.
Ganz' fiery rants as the Führer seem to be overly studied, not emanating from the core of his being. . . .Hirschbeigel wants us to see that Hitler was just a flawed human being but human nonetheless.
I didn't see that, and wouldn't feel qualified to judge what the core of his being would sound like. This is niggling, on your part, the one weakness of your review, because it's a remarkable performance and it may be what the film will be chiefly remembered for. I do see that ranting Hitler, only close up. I'm not sure what Hirschbeigel wants us to "see" Hitler as. I suppose he's just trying to recreate the scene of that moment in history. We can "see" Hitler as we wish. Hitler was a human being, unless you believe in demons. There's the rub. Humans can be monsters.

The film, however, singles out a few individuals for being "good Nazis" and does not always tell the entire story. I think you want the film to condemn each character one by one when it is occupied with representing them as they were then, and cannot give a complete comment on all the historical and biographical information involved in the fall of the Third Reich. Just the fact that he doesn't show every character's crimes isn't an indication that Hirshbeigel is presenting even a partial apologia for the Third Reich or is painting anyone as "good Nazis." You don't explain how in the case of each character you mention the "entire story" could be worked into the movie -- which is already overburdened with specific detail. I think you have to take things like Hitler's cruel attitude even toward his own followers and the horific behavior of characters like Frau Goebbles as standing for all the evil of the Third Reich; you can't expect every character's wrongdoings to be inventoried in a movie confined to a very specific, brief period of time. In a film about Albert Speer one could show all his good and bad aspects, of which his possible prolongation of the war would be a major one. But he has only a small part here, so that can't be shown. It could have been mentioned, but I doubt that would make this a better film, or make you satisfied with it.

Howard Schumann
12-12-2005, 02:31 PM
As far as Ganz' performance is concerned, I think he is a great actor but in some of the scenes I saw Ganz "trying" to be authentic. In those moments, he was Ganz, not Hitler for me. Sorry if you disagree.

As far as relating history, not as very selective dramatic episodes, perhaps he might have begun the film with a brief retrospective on Hitler as he was and a segment on those arround him. Perhaps then it could be mentioned that there was a lot more detail than could be shown in the film. I'm not saying he deliberately distorted the truth, but many unfamiliar with the past will come away thinking how courageous Schenk, Speer, and Fenelink really were and that Goebbles broke down and cried. How touching.

Chris Knipp
12-12-2005, 03:14 PM
That's a good idea -- about some kind of prefatory announcement before the actual drama of the film. I'm not an expert on Ganz. I still haven't seen Sokurov's Molokh, which I must -- after Father and Son and The Sun, I've become a Sokurov fan. Unfortunately from our point of view nobody knows much and the movies or TV they see misinforms them because it tells them too little. I believe in preparing the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy S.E. Hirsch found that only a minority of younger people knew the dates of WWI, WWII, the (US) Civil War. Even Vietnam is a mystery to them. But they need to absorb way more than a German movie to learn about the Nazis and WWII.

When you're watching an actor it may be better if you don't know him at all or not very well. I was conscious this was an actor impersonating Hitler, how could it be otherwise? But I think he did a fantastic job. I didn't see him trying too hard. And I agree with those who consider this a great performance, one for which the movie should be remembered. But the character so strange, I can see how you might find it strained. It would be interesting as I said in connection with The SUn to compare Ganz with Issei Ogata's remarkable performance as Hirohito there.

Howard Schumann
12-12-2005, 03:19 PM
I think the main difference is that Hitler was genuinely frightening and Ganz wasn't at all. Maybe it's the kindness in his face but he did not seem to inhabit the character. Just a personal reaction.

Chris Knipp
12-12-2005, 03:48 PM
I'm not sure Hitler was frightening up close the way he was in the big rallies. You referred to those back at the beginning. He had a baby-kissing mode he could segue into. Anyway the frightening aspect would be the hardest to capture without going over the top.

Howard Schumann
12-12-2005, 04:33 PM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
I'm not sure Hitler was frightening up close the way he was in the big rallies. You referred to those back at the beginning. He had a baby-kissing mode he could segue into. Anyway the frightening aspect would be the hardest to capture without going over the top. Perhaps.