Downfall

English Title: Downfall

Original Title: Der Untergang

Country of Origin: Germany, Italy, Austria

Studio: Constantin Film Produktion

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Producer(s): Bernd Eichinger

Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger

Cinematographer: Rainer Klausmann

Editor: Hans Funck

Runtime: 156 minutes

Genre: Drama, War

Language: German, Russian

Starring/Cast: Christian Berkel, Heino Ferch, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Habich, Corinna Harfouch, André Hennicke, Juliane Köhler, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ulrich Matthes, Ulrich Noethen

Year: 2004

Volume: German

Synopsis:
Set in April 1945 as the Red Army enters Berlin, the film narrates the fall of the Nazi regime on two different spatial levels: underground in a secret bunker, it depicts the Führer’s (Ganz) final days and the rampant hysteria among his closest collaborators; above ground on Berlin’s streets, it follows three parallel stories. The first deals with a group of child soldiers from the Hitler Youth, who struggle in their attempt to resist the advancing enemy. The second story concerns a doctor, Professor Ernst-Günter Schenck (Berkel), who witnesses the cruelty of some SS guards toward civilians while trying to retrieve medical provision for his hospital. The third story centres on the clash between SS officer Wilhelm Mohnke (Hennicke) and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Matthes), concerning the use of volunteers, the Volkssturm, in the final battle to defend the Reich Chancellery. Adopting a circular narrative structure, Downfall’s narrator and main character is Traudl Junge (Lara), Hitler’s personal secretary, while scenes from a documentary interview with the real Junge frame the fictional reconstructions. After the suicides of Hitler, his wife Eva Braun (Köhler) and the Goebbels family, the film concludes with Junge fleeing the Soviet infantrymen along with Peter (Donevan Gunia), the only survivor of the Hitler Youth group.


Critique:
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Downfall is one of the most successful German films of the last decade in terms of festival presentations, awards and international audience figures. Since its initial theatrical release, it has continued its prominence as a result of various DVD editions and television re-runs. At the same time, Hirschbiegel’s film has been controversial. Fiercely attacked by some critics for humanizing a Parkinson-debilitated Führer, who in his last days appreciated a popular song sung by children or a slice of cake for his birthday, Downfall also depicts a cruel dictator who despises the German people for failing to live up to his exaggerated expectations. As a result, the final image of Hitler is of a simple person who managed to understand the mood of the people and lead the Germans into a self-destructive war sustained by military strategists and propaganda experts.

 

In its attempt to create the most authentic reconstruction of the last days of the Third Reich, the film reinforces the duality between good and evil. The representation of space in Downfall reflects this black and white division: the German people versus the Nazi elites, victims versus perpetrators, which, according to Paul Cooke, alludes to the earlier representations of the regime in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War (2007: 247–61). The binary opposition between good and bad Germans is made explicit through the parallelism of the narrative strands above and below the ground level. While in the bunker the evil manifests itself through senseless military plans as well as in Magda Goebbels’s (Harfouch) chilling decision to kill her children and commit suicide in order to avoid a life without National Socialism, on the surface various sequences show the suffering of ordinary Germans.

 

Specifically, Downfall constructs a clear vision of the population as defenceless victims of Hitler’s and Goebbels’s insanity by showing the massacre of child soldiers on Berlin streets, and the senseless use of volunteer civilians in the firing line between the Red Army and the remnants of the German military forces. Nevertheless, the film does not cover the trauma of millions of German women raped by Soviet soldiers, even though it is mentioned by some women present in the bunker, and alludes very vaguely in the last sequence to the atrocities committed by the Red Army.

 

Traudl Junge constitutes the connection between the two worlds the film depicts: the suffocating and sinister bunker and the bloody rubble-covered streets of Berlin. The film culminates in her acknowledgment of her naïve belief in National Socialism, and of her thoughtless involvement with Hitler’s activities. As she ponders the consequences of her actions and the question of her personal responsibility, her character becomes a symbol for larger issues of national guilt and the banality of evil.

Author of this review: Elena Caoduro