you're reading...
-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘Downfall’ (2004): Evil till the Last Moment

Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel || Produced by: Bernd Eichinger

Screenplay by: Bernd Eichinger || Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Kohler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Alexander Held, Matthias Habich, Thomas Kretschmann

Music by: Stephan Zacharias || Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann || Edited by: Hans Funck || Country: Germany, Italy, Austria || Language: German

Running Time: 155 minutes

Growing up in the United States, World War II (WWII) and the Nazi role within the European Theatre — including and especially Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust — are emphasized in our K-12 social studies almost as much as the American Revolutionary (1776-1783) and Civil Wars (1861-1865). There are many reasons for this, including our sizeable Jewish-American population, the massive industrialization of US society and transition out of the Great Depression (1929-1939) as a direct result of the conflict, and the US’s displacement of the British Empire as the premiere world superpower after the war.

The use of WWII as a narrative backdrop and Nazis as unredeemable bad guys have thus been staples of Hollywood filmmaking for decades (e.g. Casablanca [1942], Schindler’s List [1993], Saving Private Ryan [1998], Inglourious Basterds [2009], Overlord [2018], etc.), but the Nazis themselves are most always portrayed as a sort of foreign, external evil. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall is by far the most famous native German portrayal of the Nazi government, with star Bruno Ganz’s iconic lead performance as the Führer later becoming the subject of numerous Internet parodies and memes well over a decade after the film’s release. Downfall is much more than just “the Hitler-rant movie,” though, as its meaty 2.5 hour depiction of the last days of the Nazi Reich during the Battle of Berlin shows how chaotic, spiteful, and bitter their refusal to let go of power was. The ever present sound edits, in-camera mortar fire FX, and atmospheric tension of the encroaching Red Army act as the screenplay’s ticking clock, but the heart of the film is the desperate, almost sad, yet still cruel behavior of the German government leaders to force many other, less powerful members of society to pay for their glorified nationalist suicide.

Left: A document purge at the Schutzstaffel headquarters during Operation Clausewitz. Right: The beginning of the most recognizable scene in the entire movie: Hitler’s rant about Felix Steiner’s absence from Berlin.

Downfall starts not with the violent Soviet curb stomping of the German Reich, but rather a quiet nighttime interview with several young women for the position of Hitler’s personal secretary in 1942. This prologue sets the stage for the supposed average German’s reverence at the time for the prevailing regime, as well as a personable, quiet, almost anti-stereotypical portrayal of Hitler; that tranquil tone is juxtaposed against the sheer panic of the rest of the story in Berlin, most of which takes place underground or just outside the Führerbunker, or the final headquarters of the WWII German government.

The cinematography within the subterranean air-raid shelter feels subdued, dominated by subtle Steadicam movements or locked-down tripod shots with characters often either shot as singles or as ensembles. Outside the bunker, various subplots with different Nazi regiments and civilians are captured with more diverse camerawork, such as less stabilized handheld, dollies, and more rapid-fire edits. These two cinematic perspectives intercut more frequently as the film progresses and the Red Army closes in on the last vestiges of the Nazi military command, though our point of view always stays on the German side and we never get a clear view of the Soviets until the last couple scenes.

With regards to characterizations, Downfall is perhaps best known — again, outside that much parodied rant by Ganz at the end of the first act — for humanizing Hitler and his most loyal idealogues (e.g. Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels, Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, Ulrich Noethen as Heinrich Himmler, Christian Redl as Alfred Jodl, Rolf Kanies as Hans Krebs, etc.). I’d argue these realistic depictions of infamous historical figures, in conjunction with many of the ruthless actions they take in this narrative alone, make them feel that much scarier than if they were portrayed as over-the-top cartoon villains. Making their characterizations even more unsettling is our de facto protagonist, Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge, Hitler’s final private secretary hired in the prologue, who functions as an effective audience-surrogate despite her limited screentime and absence from most of the warfare sequences outside the Führerbunker.

Top: The surviving members of the German Reich salute the cremation of Hitler’s body. Bottom: Protagonist Alexandra Maria Lara (center foreground) and former child soldier Donevan Gunia (second from left) tiptoe past the Soviets as the latter consolidate their control over Berlin.

My only complaints with this whole affair have to do with the interview segments of the real-life Traudl Junge that bookend the movie, the one aspect of Downfall that felt like the filmmakers were spelling out their story’s themes to the audience, as well as the film’s length. I don’t see what the brief documentary footage adds to the film other than a haphazard garnish of “authenticity,” which the film didn’t need thanks to its somber, downtrodden, unembellished adaptation of historical events. With regards to Downfall’s extended runtime, I feel like multiple conversations within the air-raid shelter could’ve been shortened or eliminated altogether, various government officer suicides and impromptu executions could’ve been reduced to montage sequences, and much of Christian Berkel’s subplot as Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck feels superfluous compared to the perspectives provided by multiple German civilians throughout war-torn Berlin.

Downfall dramatizes the vainglorious end to one of the most infamous state governments in modern history through its humanization of its leaders, leaders who have been depicted as caricatures in various other media in the decades since their death, Hollywood media most of all. I’d argue that’s the film’s main selling point, how it portrays otherwise vile, inhumane figures with such humanity and therefore makes these individuals feel that much more believable. Bruno Ganz’s turn as the Führer himself is by far the most memorable performance, but most all the characters here are fascinating, from the almost innocent to the despicable. I still argue the film’s 155-minute running time could’ve jettisoned multiple subplots to better streamline its primary characterizations, but altogether Downfall is a powerful illustration of the real-life madness behind what is so often painted as simplistic, one-dimensional villainy.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Dark, morbid, and above all, sad, Downfall emphasizes the human face behind the most lethal genocidal state regime in modern human history. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel refuses to compromise this sensitive narrative’s cinematic merit with Oscar-bait speeches or by preaching to his audience, instead letting the historical subject-matter speak for itself through subtle, efficient cinematography and a colorful mosaic of subplots about the demise of a world power.

However… Downfall is one of countless 2.5 hour+ dramas that didn’t need to be that long. One or more of the Schutzstaffel, Berlin civilian, or Führerbunker plots needed to go; the Traudl Junge interview segments add nothing to the film.


? How many times has Thomas Kretschmann played a Nazi in his career?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


No comments yet.

Am I spot on? Am I full of it? Let me know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: