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aka - Untergang, Der
Germany/Italy 2004
Directed by
Oliver Hirschbiegel
150 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis: The time is late April, 1945; the Red Army is approaching Berlin, and Hitler, living with his military aides and staff in a bunker under the Reich Chancellery, is mentally and physically disintegrating as fast as the Third Reich itself.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi phenomenon continue to intrigue long after Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot have faded into historical darkness. The reason perhaps is that whilst the latter committed their mind-numbing atrocities by dint of brutal despotism, Hitler managed his with the complicity of his own people. This conundrum is very much at the centre of director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s and producer-writer Bernd Eichinger’s recounting of Hitler's final ten days in a Berlin bunker.

This extensively researched and convincing-looking film tackles its subject by placing an ordinary German, Traudl Junge, who became one of Hitler’s private secretaries at the age of 22, as a witness to these events and a kind of surrogate of the now mortified German volk (the film is based on Traudl’s own memoir, 'Until the Final Hour' as well as 'Inside Hitler’s Bunker', by historian and Hitler specialist, Joachim Fest). It is her own voice that is heard in the prologue to the film and she appears at the end of the film in a borrowed excerpt from a documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. It is a device which works very well to show the mix of devotion, sense of obligation, fear and need for self-affirmation that led to the Holocaust.

At the other end of the spectrum of course is Der Fuhrer, the self-styled shepherd who led his ultimately ungrateful flock over the moral precipice. Once again Downfall works superbly to create a picture of a man and regime committed with cultish dedication to their will to power even when, as we see here, they realize that they are about to be destroyed by it. Bruno Ganz, an actor we more often associate with a quiet, almost doleful passivity, gives an extraordinary performance as Hitler, the symbolic epicentre of the Nazi dream but also a kind of puppet for it, albeit one deluded in his belief in his own importance and autonomy.

As an insight into the heart of Naziism, Downfall is commendable, but works best if one has some knowledge of the movement’s history and ideology, which clearly its domestic German audience would have. Although there is not a lot of emphasis given to narrative development, the roster of Nazi personnel who play a part, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and the large number of field generals and aides means that close attention is required to understand more than the broad strokes of the unfolding nightmare. Hirschbiegel also introduces the character of a Nazi doctor whose presence keeps intruding to no great benefit, for the more humane, or sane, character of the Nazi leadership is well enough shown in other ways.

The film has earned criticism, even derision, in its homeland for humanizing Hitler and Naziism. But is not the recognition that there was commitment, even idealism, as well as degradation, desperation, pathos and other human realities mixed in with the rise and fall of the Third Reich, more important than amazing us with its extraordinary monstrosity? In this respect, Downfall is an engrossing achievement and well worth seeing if you have an interest in the psychological underpinnings of most disastrous self-delusion of the 20th, or for that matter any, century.




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