'Downfall' movie: Overlong and overwrought World War II drama lifted by several memorable performances
Oliver Hirschbiegel's German box office hit Downfall / Der Untergang is a generally engrossing psychological-historical drama whose emotional charge is diluted by excessive length, an overabundance of characters, and a tendency to emphasize the more obvious aspects of the narrative.
On the positive side, several key performances – including Bruno Ganz's now iconic Adolf Hitler – help to lift Downfall above the level of myriad other Nazi era movies.
Nazi Germany literally goes under
In Downfall, which by the end of 2004 had been seen by more than 4.5 million German moviegoers, Nazi Germany is about to lose the war. In his underground bunker, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) grows increasingly out of touch with reality as he sees his dream of Deutschland über alles go kaput.
Some of those under his command are equally incapable of thinking coherently. These 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.
Bruno Ganz humanizes Hitler, Corinna Harfouch gives human face to sociopathic fanaticism
Narrative and directorial slips notwithstanding, the presence of Bruno Ganz is enough to make Downfall a must-see. The veteran Ganz – the fallen angel in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire – does an outstanding Hitler impersonation, going beyond the usual caricatures and superficial mannerisms to convey an actual human being whose psyche has been corroded by hatred and self-delusions.
For some, Ganz's performance may seem quite a bit over the top, but have those people ever watched any Hitler footage? Der Führer, like most herd-pleasing “charismatic” leaders, was hardly subtle.
Many of Downfall's supporting players are below par, but Aimee & Jaguar co-star Juliane Köhler, even if underused, is a superb Eva Braun, while Heino Ferch is a solid presence as Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer. Most disturbing of all, Corinna Harfouch's Magda Goebbels is the perfect embodiment of the all too human propensity for psychopathic fanaticism.
And finally, Stephan Zacharias' somber score adds the appropriate mood to the horrors and destruction shown on screen.
'Downfall' movie message: Ignorance no excuse for complicity in crimes against humanity
Especially moving and illuminating is the final interview with the real Traudl Junge (played as a young woman by Alexandra Maria Lara), in which Hitler's former secretary explains that claiming ignorance is no excuse for one's complicity – whether tacit or active – in the horrors of Nazism.
A lesson worth remembering over and over again, as crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated, abetted, and condoned – whether loudly or silently – throughout the world literally every day.
Downfall / Der Untergang (2004).
Dir.: Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Scr.: 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 and 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. Matthias Habich. Michael Mendl. André Hennicke. Ulrich Noethen. Birgit Minichmayr. Rolf Kanies. Justus von Dohnányi. Dieter Mann. Christian Redl. Götz Otto. Julia Jentsch. Devid Striesow. Oleg Popov.
Downfall cast information via the IMDb.
Corinna Harfouch, Bruno Ganz Downfall images: Newmarket / Constantin Film.