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Downfall (Der Untergang) (2004)

R · 156 minutes

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Written by Bernd Eichinger, Joachim Fest, Traudl Junge, Melissa Müller

 · Bruno Ganz
 · Alexandra Maria Lara
 · Corinna Harfouch
 · Ulrich Matthes
 · Juliane Köhler

Review by Matt Goodman

Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bruno Ganz found themselves in a predicament when they both signed on to Downfall. How does one portray a character whose face has become symbolic for the epitome of evil? How can a director truly and accurately portray one of the most infamous and demonized people in the history of the world? How can an actor display the power and audacity of something this evil? What Oliver Hirschbiegal did was craft a film of power, a film full of emotion, of violence, of fear, of sadness. Downfall is not a film that we see everyday, in fact, we'd be lucky to see a film like Downfall once a decade. Though flawed, Downfall is a passionate retelling of an incident never before touched upon by a motion picture.




Downfall begins with four women vying for a secretarial position in an underground bunker. The women ask the officer how they should should acknowledge the man who could potentially be their boss. Suddenly, the door across from the women open to reveal a being that is synonymous with darkness: Adolf Hitler. He looks at each of the women and asks them where they are from, once he makes his choice, the film fast forwards two and a half years where we find Hitler and his Reich nestled in an underground bunker in the middle of Berlin, where the Russians have started an ample attack.

The film deals with not only Hitler's final days, but the final days of the entire Reich. As Hitler's dominance over the nation begins to crumble, so does his support. Thus throughout the film, each major character begins to have their own thoughts and feelings about the best course of action for Germany; oftentimes, these beliefs are radically different than that of Hitler which leads to conflict. This is one of the film's most fascinating and intriguing aspects as the audience can literally see an entire sect unravel at the seams. It is incredibly provoking and incredibly potent.

Downfall's scope leads to the true downfall of the film. From the middle to the film's denouement, the 156 minutes are felt. As the film fades to black and each of the characters inserted in the film is flashed upon the screen with a brief "what happened to them" postscript, the audience begins to realize how deep the director took us. The film literally chronicles (whether briefly or completely) each character who steps foot into the bunker. Some we know, some we don't, and some the director chooses to simply assume we know so the audience is inserted midway into their development. Not only is this frustrating, but it brings down the film's pacing; at times the 156 minutes seem to crawl on.




What Downfall does best is transport the viewer to the historical and geographical settings in which the film took place. I can't think of another film that truly transported me to a scene such as this. It's done effortlessly, a true masterpiece of historical accuracy. Though the pacing does drag on, never are we reminded that this is 2005; for us, this is April 1945, and we are observing the collapse of the Third Reich. The lighting, the direction, the cinematography; all add to producing the successfully deteriorating atmosphere that permeates throughout every frame. This is a horrific and tragic film, and the realism makes it all the more harder to bear.

Each of the performances are fantastic as every player truly embodied their roles. Bruno Ganz has some big feet to fill; how do you portray a legendary avatar of evil? Ganz puts forth an unbridled effort to truly become another person. Not only does he have a truly eerie resemblance to Hitler, but his performance sets him over the top. I have never seen Hitler portrayed so genuinely. This is a powerful, terrifying performance, and one that will linger with the viewer for weeks after seeing the film.

The script is also sound, providing sufficient development for most characters, but falters mainly in its grandiose ambition. There is simply too much here; too many characters are brought into the picture and film becomes convoluted. Setting them straight is very tough, and some are far more interesting than others. The film provides a glance at the Reich which few films have ever provided. The men and women portrayed are not just vicious, nihilistic, caricatures of hatred; they all have feelings and depth that the history books would lead us to forget about. This film does not.



Downfall is essential viewing for anyone even half interested in history or in film. Though it is by no means perfect, this is a film that masterfully transports you back to an era. Hitler has never been portrayed with such intensity and brutal honesty. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel does his best to film the proceedings without entering in his own beliefs and opinions, and for a subject as emotional as this coupled with his German heritage, this is certainly an aspect worth noting. Downfall is a thoroughly convincing albeit convoluted look at the downfall of the Nazi regime.

849 Words · Published: 17 March 2005

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