Downfall

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

1 October

 

 

Nazi leaders sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials, 1946

On the afternoon of this day in 1946, the individual sentences were read out at the conclusion of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. The defendants were all political and military leaders of the Third Reich, and were charged with a) crimes against peace, b) planning and waging wars of aggression, c) war crimes and d) crimes against humanity. Several notable Nazis were not present – Adolf Hitler, Martin Boorman, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. Three were already known to be dead; it was assumed Boorman was still alive. He was tried in his absence, was found guilty and sentenced to death. (In fact he was dead; his remains were found in 1972). Others who received the death penalty included Hermann Göring, Alfred Jodl, Joachim Ribbentrop and Julius Streicher. Other notables such as Rudolf Hess, Karl Dönitz and Albert Speer received prison sentences. Yet others (Hans Fritzsche, Franz Von Papen and Hjalmar Schacht) were acquitted. Though there had been war trials at the end of the First World War, the Nuremberg trials marked the first time that international powers presumed to act as the arbiter of justice. Great pains were taken that there shouldn’t be any accusation that this was a show trial – the defendants were all offered lawyers, were supplied with translators, and the trials took place with all the traditional outward trappings of justice. It is a process that has been repeated on signicant occasions since, most notably after the Balkan wars and the genocide in Rwanda.

 

 

Downfall (2004, dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel)

Downfall is based on the reminiscences of Hitler’s secretary, a young woman with the lovely name of Traudl Junge, who we actually glimpse for real as an old woman at the end of the film, all “who me?” wide eyes and “we didn’t know” rationale. It’s an appropriate appearance because at least 50 per cent of Downfall is about the German people’s complicity in the crimes of their government and how much guilt they should carry for them. The rest of it is about the last days of Hitler, down in the bunker as the Soviets approach, the whump whump of incoming ordnance terrifying loud and effective (this is definitely a film for the sub-woofer). It’s Youtube-famous for all the frothing that the brilliant Bruno Ganz does as the Führer, spittingly furious about everything and promoting reluctant generals to mastermind the final defence of Berlin while everything comes crashing down and the sensible are edging towards the emergency exit. Everyone in this aberrant-looking gang knows the game is up, but how do you tell a man this angry? Angry, but not insane. One of the many brilliant things that director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s breakthrough film does, which sets it apart from so many other war films, is to present the Nazi idea as the Nazis saw it – a positive plan for a sunny future, once the nasty problem of the Jews (and everyone else who stands in its way) has been taken care of. It sells Nazism as a positive, as it must have been sold to the German populace and everyone who could be loosely termed its power base. So Hitler is not portrayed as a madman, nor are his henchmen. In fact the scene where Mr and Mrs Goebbels set about the final solution for their own children, rather than live in a world without National Socialism, is touching, heartbreaking even. In the figure of Mrs Goebbels (a tough role for Corinna Harfouch) we have a normal woman led up an awful avenue by an off-kilter belief system. The film is full of such human touches – an attempt to have a drinks party while the ceilings shake, Hitler getting married to Eva Braun and being asked by the registrar, as part of the formal procedure, whether he has any Jewish blood. Normal people gone wrong, now rats in corner, led there by their own actions and decisions. The effect is quietly devastating.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The first German film about Hitler for 50 years
  • Bruno Ganz, a formidable performance that’s once-seen, never-forgotten
  • One of the most thoughtful films about German responsibility for Nazi atrocities
  • Because it’s better than The Sea Inside – which beat it to Best Foreign Language Oscar

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Downfall – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Downfall”

  1. This film definitely is a must-see because of the incomparable degree of realism displayed in it. Direction, camera and acting are of an unparalleled level and make you, as the viewer, feel as if you are actually in Berlin, 1945, and in the Führer’s bunker. The film does not provide any commentary or judgment, it just shows facts.

    The film is criticized because it gives the Nazi’s a human face, but this is exactly it’s strongest point: the Nazi’s were not extraterrestrial monsters, they were as human as you and I. The image of Hitler crying of sorrow because all is lost, is still burned on my retina.

    In my opinion, this is a film that should be shown in schools to illustrate the Second World War with. It is probably impossible to provide a more realistic account, without *any* form of judgment.

    A major achievement, even for Germany as a whole. It is very brave to create such a realistic film about one’s own past.

  2. Der Untergang makes you live the horrors and craziness of war. Bruno Ganz’s interpretation of Adolf Hitler is worthy of an Oscar. He is completely believable. Also the rest of the cast performs admirably. You feel transported to Berlin as it was bombarded by the Russians. You get a very clear insight (or an impression?) in how the military decisions were taken during those final days of the war. The movie balances well between large-scale effects of bombs exploding in ruined streets and depictions of different persons going though the experience – from Hitler and his staff in the well-protected bunkers to the principal military commanders torn between reason and loyalty and German civilians trapped in an inferno. The movie is neither pro-Nazi nor does it depict all Nazis as mindless monsters. It gives an impression of utter realism. Go see it in a good cinema – your seat will tremble as the bombs explode. A nine out of ten.

  3. ‘Der Untergang’ is probably the only WW2 movie I’ve ever seen, which only deals with facts and is utterly deprived of any form of commercialism whatsoever. Bruno Ganz is truly excellent in his role as Adolf Hitler, a tired man who sees his "Reich" fall, but cannot accept it. Overall (type)casting is very good; all the actors chosen to portray a famous/notorious character look a lot like the real deal, especially Goebbels. Although I’m not a fan of long war movies, these 2,5 hours passed very quickly due to excellent acting, great sets, FX and storyline. Somehow, every scene is dripping with underlying tension that never really explodes; a kind of unsettling unbelieved grips you when you see seemingly ordinary people commit astonishing atrocities and sins towards mankind, just for their faith and loyalty to one man, Hitler, who himself walks the edge of reason.

    Great movie : 10/10 without a doubt.

  4. The first 15 minutes made me doubt the qualities of this movie. The situations were a bit forced and the cuts were strange. But after the uncomfortable beginning the movie took momentum and kept it until the end.

    I think the choice of depicting Hitler as a human being with a dispassionate and modest direction was excellent. The film never tries to force viewers into an opinion. Everybody can form his own opinion. Too often the horrors of WWII led writers and directors to depict Nazis as monsters. Perfectly normal human beings can be cruel and merciless if they are blinded (by hate for example), which should never be forgotten.

    In a way, a human Hitler to me is more guilty than a raving monster. He had the choice and he chose to do wrong. He could choose life and he chose murder and destruction. A human being lost respect for the life of other human beings and led a country into genocide. Ultimately he loses respect for all life and starts sacrificing his own soldiers at random. This is what I value this film for, making the idea of a human Hitler tangible.

    It was very brave to make this film, given that controversy was almost certain to arise. One of the highlights of this year, to be sure.

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