- Downfall (movie 2004) review: Set in Hitler’s underground bunker during the last days of the Nazi regime, Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bernd Eichinger’s frenzied, confusing, and overlong WWII drama is at its most effective when any one of a trio of actors takes center stage: Bruno Ganz, Corinna Harfouch, and Juliane Köhler as, respectively, Adolf Hitler, Magda Goebbels, and Eva Braun.
- Downfall was shortlisted in the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category.
Downfall (movie 2004) review: Remarkable performances are highlights in overlong + overwrought ‘last days of Hitler’ drama
A Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee and a controversial release in its native Germany – where it eventually became a sizable box office hit seen by more than 4.5 million people – director Oliver Hirschbiegel and screenwriter-producer Bernd Eichinger’s costly (approx. $15 million) psychological-historical drama Downfall / Der Untergang offers an agonizing portrait of the final days of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Although generally engrossing, Downfall suffers from excessive length (156 minutes), an overabundance of all but indistinguishable characters in minor roles, and a tendency to emphasize the more obvious aspects of the narrative.
On the plus side, excellent production values, Stephan Zacharias’ appropriately somber score, and several key performances – including Best European Actor nominee Bruno Ganz’s feverish Adolf Hitler – help to lift Downfall above the level of most Nazi era films.
Nazi Germany goes under
In this big-screen adaptation of two books (details further below), Nazi Germany is in its last throes. In his underground bunker, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) grows increasingly out of touch with reality as he watches his “Deutschland über Alles” dream go kaput.
Some of those under his command are equally incapable of thinking rationally. These (mostly) men have been so – however willingly – brainwashed that they would rather face death than a world without National Socialism.
Meanwhile, above ground in the streets of Berlin, the German people are left to fend for themselves as Russian troops approach the city.
Iconic Bruno Ganz portrayal
In spite of the various narrative and directorial slips mentioned further up, the presence of Bruno Ganz is enough to make Downfall a must-see.
The veteran actor – best known internationally as the fallen angel in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire – does a first-rate Adolf Hitler characterization, delving far deeper than the mere recreation of mannerisms to convey a complex individual with a profoundly warped psyche.
On its way to becoming an iconic film portrayal à la Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Ganz’s performance may come across to some as over the top – sort of like the Nazi version of Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
But if so, have those people ever watched any Hitler footage?
Der Führer, like most herd-pleasing “charismatic” leaders, was hardly what one would call “restrained.”
Volcanic explosions or no, Bruno Ganz’s Adolf Hitler is spot on.
The human face of pathological fanaticism
Many of Downfall’s supporting players are below par, but Aimee & Jaguar co-star Juliane Köhler, even if somewhat relegated to the sidelines, is an excellent Eva Braun, while Heino Ferch has a commanding presence as Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer.
Most disturbing – and most memorable – of all, Corinna Harfouch’s Magda Goebbels is the perfect embodiment of the all too human propensity for psychopathic fanaticism.
Had there been any awards season justice, Harfouch would have been one of last year’s top European Film Award contenders. (As Downfall, absurdly, opened in the U.S. only in 2005, she – along with Bruno Ganz and the movie’s other talent – were ineligible for the Academy Awards.)
Ignorance no excuse for complicity
Ironically, notwithstanding all the rage and despair depicted in Downfall, one of the film’s most notable moments takes place during a placid interview featured at the end.
In the archive footage from André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary / Im toten Winkel – Hitlers Sekretärin, Adolf Hitler’s former secretary Traudl Junge (as a young woman, played by Alexandra Maria Lara) explains that claiming ignorance is no excuse for one’s – active or tacit – complicity in the horrors of Nazism.
Or, one might add, for one’s active or tacit complicity in the horrors of any other sociopolitical system.
A message worth reiterating, as, although Nazi Germany is a thing of the past, crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated, abetted, and condoned – whether loudly or silently – in both autocracies and so-called democracies in every corner of the globe.
Downfall / Der Untergang (movie 2004) cast & crew
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger.
From Joachim Fest’s book Untergang: Hitler und das Ende des Dritten Reiches / Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich and Traudl Junge & Melissa Müller’s Bis zur letzten Stunde / Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary.
Cast: Bruno Ganz. Alexandra Maria Lara. Juliane Köhler. Corinna Harfouch. Ulrich Matthes. Heino Ferch. Thomas Kretschmann. Christian Berkel. Michael Mendl. André Hennicke. Ulrich Noethen. Birgit Minichmayr. Julia Jentsch. Devid Striesow. Oleg Popov.
“Downfall (Movie 2004)” endnotes
British awards season honors
Besides its Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, among Downfall’s numerous accolades were the British Independent Film Award for Best Foreign Independent Film and the London Film Critics Circle Award for Foreign Language Film of the Year.
Corinna Harfouch and Bruno Ganz Downfall movie images: Newmarket | Constantin Film.
“Downfall (Movie 2004): Unhinged Hitler in Convoluted WWII Drama” last updated in April 2023.