Downfall (2004 film)
Downfall (German: Der Untergang) is a 2004 historical war drama film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by its producer, Bernd Eichinger. The film stars Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich, and Thomas Kretschmann. It is set during the Battle of Berlin in World War II, when Nazi Germany is on the verge of defeat, and depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler (portrayed by Ganz).
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Oliver Hirschbiegel|
|Produced by||Bernd Eichinger|
|Screenplay by||Bernd Eichinger|
|Music by||Stephan Zacharias|
|Edited by||Hans Funck|
|Distributed by||Constantin Film (Germany, Austria)|
01 Distribution (Italy)
|155 minutes (Theatrical Version)|
178 minutes (Extended Version)
|Budget||€13.5 million (approx. $15 million)|
|Box office||$92.2 million|
Principal photography took place from September to November 2003, on location in Berlin, Munich, and in Saint Petersburg, Russia. As the film is set in and around the Führerbunker, Hirschbiegel used eyewitness accounts, survivors' memoirs, and other historical sources during production to reconstruct the look and atmosphere of 1940s Berlin. The screenplay was based on the books Inside Hitler's Bunker by historian Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour by Hitler's former private secretary Traudl Junge, among other accounts of the period.
The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on 14 September 2004. It was controversial with audiences for showing the human side of Hitler and its portrayal of members of the Third Reich. It later received a wide theatrical release in Germany under its production company Constantin Film. The film grossed over $92 million, received favourable reviews from critics, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Academy Awards. Scenes from the film, such as the one where a furious Hitler learns that the generals failed to obey his orders, spawned a series of Internet memes.
In November 1942, at the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, Leader of Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler selects Traudl Junge as his personal secretary. Three years later, the Red Army has pushed Germany's forces back and surrounded Berlin. On Hitler's 56th birthday, the Red Army begins shelling Berlin's city centre. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler tries to persuade Hitler to leave Berlin, but Hitler refuses. Himmler leaves to negotiate terms with the Western Allies in secret. Later, Himmler's adjutant Hermann Fegelein also attempts to persuade Hitler to flee, but Hitler insists that he will win or die in Berlin. Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck is ordered to leave Berlin per Operation Clausewitz, though he persuades an SS general to let him stay in Berlin to treat the injured. In the streets, Hitler Youth child soldier Peter Kranz's father approaches Peter's unit and tries persuading him to leave. Peter, who destroyed two enemy tanks and will soon be awarded a medal by Hitler, calls his father a coward and runs away.
At a meeting in the Führerbunker, Hitler forbids the outnumbered 9th Army to retreat, instead ordering SS commander Felix Steiner's units to mount a counter-attack. The generals find the orders impossible and irrational. Above ground, Hitler awards Peter his medal, hailing Peter as braver than his generals. In his office, Hitler talks to Minister of Armaments Albert Speer about his scorched earth policy. Speer is concerned about the destruction of Germany's infrastructure, but Hitler believes the German people left behind are weak and thus deserve death. Meanwhile, Hitler's companion Eva Braun holds a party in the Reich Chancellery. Fegelein tries persuading Eva, his sister-in-law, to leave Berlin with Hitler, but she dismisses him. Artillery fire eventually breaks up the party. On the battlefield, General Helmuth Weidling is informed he will be executed for allegedly ordering a retreat. Weidling comes to the Führerbunker to clear himself of his charges. His action impresses Hitler, who promotes him to oversee all of Berlin's defences. At another meeting, Hitler learns Steiner did not attack because his unit was too weak. Hitler becomes enraged at what he sees as an act of betrayal and launches into a furious tirade, stating that everyone has failed him and denouncing his generals as cowards and traitors, before finally acknowledging that the war is lost, but that he would rather commit suicide than leave Berlin.
Schenck witnesses civilians being executed by German military police as supposed traitors. Hitler receives a message from Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, requesting state leadership. Hitler declares Göring a traitor, ordering Göring's dismissal from all posts, arrest, and execution in the event of his death. Speer makes a final visit to the Führerbunker, and admits to Hitler that he has defied his orders to destroy Germany's infrastructure. Hitler, however, does not punish Speer, who decides to leave Berlin. Peter's unit is defeated and he runs back to his parents. Hitler imagines more ways for Germany to turn the tide. At dinner, Hitler learns of Himmler's secret negotiations and orders his execution and also finds out that Fegelein has deserted Berlin, having him executed despite Eva's pleas. SS physician Ernst-Robert Grawitz asks Hitler's permission to evacuate for fear of Allied reprisal. Hitler refuses, leading Grawitz to kill himself and his family. The Soviets continue their advance, Berlin's supplies run low, and German morale plummets. Hitler hopes that the 12th Army, led by Walther Wenck, will save Berlin. After midnight, Hitler dictates his last will and testament to Junge, before marrying Eva. The following morning, Hitler learns that the 12th Army is stuck and cannot relieve Berlin. Refusing surrender, Hitler plans his death. He administers poison to his dog Blondi, bids farewell to the bunker staff, and commits suicide with Eva. The two are cremated in the Chancellery garden.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels assumes Chancellorship. General Hans Krebs fails to negotiate a conditional surrender with Soviet General Vasily Chuikov. Goebbels declares that Germany will not surrender as long as he is alive. Goebbels' wife Magda poisons her six children with cyanide, before committing suicide with Goebbels; Weidling announces unconditional surrender of German forces in Berlin afterwards. Many government and military officials commit suicide after learning of Germany's defeat. Peter discovers his parents were executed. Junge leaves the bunker and tries to flee the city; Peter joins her as she sneaks through a group of Soviet soldiers before the two find a bicycle and leave Berlin.
- Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler
- Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge
- Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels
- Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels
- Juliane Köhler as Eva Braun
- Thomas Kretschmann as SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein
- Heino Ferch as Oberbefehlsleiter Albert Speer
- Christian Berkel as SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck
- André Hennicke as SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke
- Götz Otto as SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Günsche
- Ulrich Noethen as Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler
- Christian Redl (de) as Generaloberst Alfred Jodl
- Rolf Kanies as Chief of the Army General Staff General der Infanterie Hans Krebs
- Michael Mendl as General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling
- Matthias Habich as SS-Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr. Werner Haase
- Birgit Minichmayr as Gerda Christian
- Dietrich Hollinderbäumer as Generalfeldmarschall Robert Ritter von Greim
- Dieter Mann as Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel
- Justus von Dohnányi as General der Infanterie Wilhelm Burgdorf
- Gerald Alexander Held as Walther Hewel
- Donevan Gunia as Peter Kranz
- Thomas Thieme as Reichsleiter Martin Bormann
- Thomas Limpinsel (de) as SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz Linge
- Hans Steinberg as General der Flieger Karl Koller
- Heinrich Schmieder as SS-Oberscharführer Rochus Misch
- Thorsten Krohn as SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger
- Jürgen Tonkel as SS-Obersturmbannführer Erich Kempka
- Igor Romanov as SS-Obersturmbannführer Peter Högl
- Igor Bubenchikov as SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Schädle
- Michael Brandner as Hans Fritzsche
- Christian Hoening as SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst-Robert Grawitz
- Anna Thalbach as Hanna Reitsch
- Bettina Redlich as Constanze Manziarly
- Devid Striesow as Feldwebel Fritz Tornow
- Elizaveta Boyarskaya as Erna Flegel
- Mathias Gnädinger as Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring
- Alexander Slastin as Soviet Colonel general Vasily Chuikov
- Elena Dreyden as Inge Dombrowski
- Oliver Stritzel as Johannes Hentschel
Producer-screenwriter Bernd Eichinger wanted to make a film about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party for 20 years but was, at first, discouraged after its enormity prevented him from doing so. Eichinger was inspired to begin the filmmaking process after reading Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich (2002) by historian Joachim Fest. Eichinger also based the film on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries, called Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary (2002); he used the books Inside the Third Reich (1969), by Albert Speer, one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials to survive both the war and the Nuremberg trials; Hitler's Last Days: An Eye-Witness Account (1973), by Gerhard Boldt; Das Notlazarett unter der Reichskanzlei: Ein Arzt erlebt Hitlers Ende in Berlin (1995) by Ernst-Günther Schenck; and Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936–1949 (1992) by Siegfried Knappe as references when writing the screenplay.
After completing the script for the film, Eichinger presented it to director Oliver Hirschbiegel. Though he was interested in exploring how the people of Germany "could have plumbed such depths", as a German, Hirschbiegel hesitated to take it as he "reacted to the idea of Nazism as a taboo". Hirschbiegel eventually agreed to helm the project.
When Bruno Ganz was offered the role of Hitler, he was reluctant to accept the part, and many of his friends advised against accepting it. But he believed that the subject had "a fascinating side", and ultimately agreed to take the role. Ganz conducted four months of research and studied a recording of Hitler in private conversation with Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim in order to properly mimic Hitler's conversational voice and Austrian dialect. Ganz came to the conclusion that Hitler had Parkinson's disease, noting his observation of Hitler's shaky body movements present in the newsreel Die Deutsche Wochenschau, and decided to visit a hospital to study patients with the disease. Ganz auditioned in the casting studio with makeup for half an hour and tested his voice for Hirschbiegel who was convinced by his performance.
Alexandra Maria Lara was cast as Traudl Junge; she was given Junge's book Until the Final Hour (2002), which she called her "personal treasure", to read during filming. Before she was cast, she had seen André Heller's documentary film Im toten Winkel which impressed her and influenced her perspective on Junge.
Filming and design
Principal photography lasted 12 weeks in the period from September to November 2003, under the working title Sunset. The film is set mostly in and around the Führerbunker; Hirschbiegel made an effort to accurately reconstruct the look and atmosphere of World War II through eyewitness accounts, survivors' memoirs, and other historical sources. Hirschbiegel filmed in the cities of Berlin, Munich, and Saint Petersburg, Russia, with an industrial district slum along the Obvodny Canal used to portray the historical setting in Berlin. Hirschbiegel noted the shoot to be depressing. He found relief by listening to Johann Sebastian Bach's music. According to Lara, the atmosphere for the actors was intense and also became depressing during filming. To lighten the mood, Lara's colleagues engaged in activities such as football, while Ganz tried to keep a happy mood by retiring during shooting breaks.
The film was produced on a €13.5 million budget. The bunker and Hitler's Wolf's Lair was constructed at Bavaria Studios in Munich by production designer Bernd Lepel. One CGI scene of the Reichstag building as it would have appeared before the restoration was created. Hirschbiegel decided to limit the amount of CGI, props, and sets so as not to make the set design look like that of a theatre production. He explained:
According to Eichinger, the film's overlying idea was to make a film about Hitler and war-time Germany that was very close to historical truth, as part of a theme that would allow the German nation to save their own history and "experience their own trauma". To accomplish this, the film explores Hitler's decisions and motives during his final days through the perspective of the individuals who lived in the Führerbunker during those times. Eichinger chose not to include mention of the Holocaust because it was not the topic of the film. He also thought it was "impossible" to show the "misery" and "desperation" of the concentration camps cinematically.
During production, Hirschbiegel believed that Hitler would often charm people using his personality, only to manipulate and betray them. Many of the people in the film, including Traudl Junge, are shown to be enthusiastic in interacting with Hitler instead of feeling threatened or anxious by his presence and authority. The production team sought to give Hitler a three-dimensional personality, with Hirschbiegel telling NBC: "We know from all accounts that he was a very charming man – a man who managed to seduce a whole people into barbarism." He stated that Hitler was "like a shell", attracting people with self-pity, but inside the shell was only "an enormous will for destruction".
The film explores the suicides and deaths of the Nazi Party as opposed to the people who choose life. Hitler's provision of cyanide pills to those in the bunker and the Goebbels' murder of their children are shown as selfish deeds while people such as Schenck, who choose to help the injured and escape death, are shown as rational and generous. In the DVD commentary, Hirschbiegel said that the events in the film were "derived from the accounts, from descriptions of people" in the bunker. The film also includes an introduction and closing with the real Junge in an interview from Im toten Winkel, where she admits feeling guilt for "not recognizing this monster in time".
Downfall premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 14, 2004. After first failing to find a distributor, the film was eventually released on September 16 in Germany by Constantin Film. It premiered in the U.S. in Manhattan on February 18, 2005, under Newmarket Films. On its broadcast in the UK, Channel 4 marketed it with the strapline: "It's a happy ending. He dies."
Box office and awards
Downfall sold nearly half a million tickets in Germany for its opening weekend and attracted 4.5 million viewers in the first three months. The final North American gross was $5,509,040, while $86,671,870 was made with its foreign gross. The film made $93.6 million altogether.
In 2005, Downfall was nominated for an Oscar at the 77th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It won the 2005 BBC Four World Cinema competition. The film was also ranked number 48 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
The review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 91 percent, with a weighted average of 7.99 out of 10 based on 139 reviews from critics. The website's "Critics Consensus" describes it as "an illuminating, thoughtful and detailed account of Hitler's last days". On Metacritic, the film received "[u]niversal acclaim" and was awarded its "Must-See" badge, with a weighted average of 82 out of 100 based on 35 reviews.
Reviews for the film were often very positive, despite debate surrounding the film from critics and audiences upon its release . Ganz's portrayal of Hitler was singled out for praise; David Denby for The New Yorker said that Ganz "made the dictator into a plausible human being". Addressing other critics like Denby, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said the film did not provide an adequate portrayal of Hitler's actions, because he felt no film could, and that no response would be sufficient. Ebert said Hitler was, in reality, "the focus for a spontaneous uprising by many of the German people, fuelled by racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear".
Hermann Graml, history professor and former Luftwaffe helper, praised the film and said that he had not seen a film that was "so insistent and tormentingly alive". Graml said that Hitler's portrayal was presented correctly by showing Hitler's will "to destroy, and his way of denying reality". Julia Radke of the German website Future Needs Remembrance praised the film's acting and called it well crafted and a solid Kammerspielfilm, though it could lose viewer interest due to a lack of concentration on the narrative perspective. German author Jens Jessen said that the film "could have been stupider" and called it a "chamber play that could not be staged undramatically". Jessen also said that it was not as spectacular as the pre-media coverage could have led one to believe, and it did not arouse the "morbid fascination" the magazine Der Spiegel was looking for.
Hitler biographer Sir Ian Kershaw wrote in The Guardian that the film had enormous emotive power, calling it a triumph and "a marvellous historical drama". Kershaw also said that he found it hard to imagine anyone would find Hitler to be a sympathetic figure in his final days. Wim Wenders, in a review for the German newspaper Die Zeit, said the film was absent of a strong point of view for Hitler which made him harmless, and compared Downfall to Resident Evil: Apocalypse, stating that in Resident Evil the viewer would know which character was evil.
— Hirschbiegel in 2015, on the criticism surrounding the portrayal of Hitler
Downfall was the subject of dispute by critics and audiences in Germany before and after its release, with many concerned of Hitler's role in the film as a human being with emotions in spite of his actions and ideologies. The portrayal sparked debate in Germany due to publicity from commentators, film magazines, and newspapers, leading the German tabloid Bild to ask the question, "Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?".
It was criticized for its scenes involving the members of the Nazi party, with author Giles MacDonogh criticizing the portrayals as being sympathetic towards SS officers Wilhelm Mohnke and Ernst-Günther Schenck, the former of which was accused of murdering a group of British prisoners of war in the Wormhoudt massacre. But at a discussion in London, Hirschbiegel said in response that he did not find the allegations for Schenck convincing. The film was also seen as controversial because it was made by Germans instead of British or American filmmakers. Russian press visited the set, making the producers uneasy and occasionally defensive. Yana Bezhanskay, director of Globus Film, Constantin's Russian partner, raised her voice to Russian journalists and said: "This is an antifascist film and nowhere in it do you see Hitler praised."
Cristina Nord from Die Tageszeitung criticized the portrayal, and said that though it was important to make films about perpetrators, "seeing Hitler cry" had not informed her on the last days of the Third Reich. Some have supported the film: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, director of Hitler: A Film from Germany, felt the time was right to "paint a realistic portrait" of Hitler. Eichinger replied to the response from the film by stating that the "terrifying thing" about Hitler was that he was human and "not an elephant or a monster from Mars". Ganz said that he was proud of the film; though he said people had accused him of "humanizing" Hitler.
Downfall is well known for its rise in popularity due to Internet parodies called "Hitler Rants", which use scenes in the film such as where Hitler becomes angry after hearing that Steiner's attack never happened, when Hitler hears Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring's telegram, where Hitler phones General der Flieger Karl Koller about Berlin's April 20th bombings, when Hitler discovers Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler secretly made a surrender offer to the Western Allies, where Hitler orders Otto Günsche to find SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, where Goebbels rants after hearing that Soviet Colonel General Vasily Chuikov demanded Berlin to unconditionally surrender, and Hitler discusses a counterattack against advancing Soviet forces with his generals. In the videos the original German audio is retained, but new subtitles are added so that Hitler and his subordinates seem to be reacting to an issue of setback in present-day politics, sports, entertainment, popular culture, or everyday life. By 2010, there were thousands of parodies. Various YouTubers make Downfall reaction videos and some have cited their reasons for making them.
Hirschbiegel spoke positively about these parodies in a 2010 interview with New York magazine, saying that many of them were funny and a fitting extension of the film's purpose. Nevertheless, Constantin Film asked video sites before to remove many of them. The producers initiated a removal of parody videos from YouTube in 2010. This prompted more posting of parody videos of Hitler complaining that the parodies were being taken down, and a resurgence of the videos on the site.
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In various home-subtitled remakes over the last few years, Hitler explodes when told that the McMansion he was trying to flip is in foreclosure, that the band Oasis has split up, that the Colts lost the Super Bowl or that people keep making more "Downfall" parodies.
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- Der Untergang (Downfall) on IMDb
- Der Untergang (Downfall) at AllMovie
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