Der Untergang (Downfall) traces the fall of the Wehrmacht and the Nazi regime during 1945. It’s certainly a bold film, the first Germanic treatment of one of the country’s most controversial figures. Unfortunately claims that the filmmakers have humanised Hitler have dominated the film’s release, but in all fairness these accusations are not completely unjustified.
The opening passage of the film illustrates Hitler’s caring love for his dog Blondi – aptly named given Hitler’s philosophical preference for blonde hair and blue eyes – and he is even kind to a group of secretaries, who cower in his presence. This scene resembles the kind of playful montage that accompanied Oscar Schindler’s selection of a secretary in Schindler’s List. In fact the film as a whole is an inverted version of Schindler’s List, with the humanity of Hitler shown at the beginning of the narrative and the more negative aspects of the character shown in the maddening fall of the Nazi regime.
But this film isn’t necessarily a history lesson. The story centres on the last 12 days of Hitler’s reign, and while it is generally unafraid to confront the uncomfortable truth, it’s also not afraid to add theatrics to the gruesome proceedings. One of the film’s most haunting scenes occurs when Doctor Haase (Matthias Habrich) walks along the front of the Chancellery building while a plethora of Nazi documents rains down onto the pavement, to be burnt, washing away any trace of the evil that many men participated in. Although a guiltily surreal scene, it echoes with the resonance of a million other atrocious acts which went unnoticed during the conflict.
The film’s unusual attention to historical accuracy is also evident in the inclusion of Himmler’s talks with Eisenhower about a proposed Axis surrender – an event that, if true, would have shortened the war by several months and prevented the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of people.
On the other hand, the Goebbels – the perfect Aryan family – are shown rather manipulatively as a kind of nightmarish version of the Von Trapp family from The Sound of the Music. Director Oliver Hirshbeigel uses their suicide as a potent emotional tool to drag the last trace of optimism out of the audience, which some may applaud, and others may dislike. In my opinion it was a brilliantly acted scene as Frau Goebbels (Corrina Harfouch) commits multiple acts of infanticide that make almost unbearable viewing. It is also interesting to see the screenplay tackle the motivations of these well documented historical figures. In Frau Goebbel’s case, she states that she ‘won’t allow her children to grow up in a world with no National Socialism.’ Some may say this is a little one-dimensional, but it is probably closer to the truth than most historians would care to admit.
On the flip side there are some important historical omissions, including the exclusion of Dr. Theodor Morrell, Hitler’s most trusted physician, who helped the Fuhrer with his constant headaches and flatulence. In fact, he only left the bunker 6 days before Hitler’s death. It was also rumoured that Morrell was slowly poisoning Hitler using strychnine, and that he also helped the withered man administer injections of morphine.
Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of the leader of the Third Reich certainly doesn’t overlook his drug addiction and at least attempts to be something more than a caricature or stereotype. Further illustrations of the screenwriter’s attempts to build a multi-layered Hitler occur when it is suggested that the Führer should leave Berlin. The response is categorical, and explains Hitler’s stubbornness to leave the capital; "You must be on the stage when the curtain comes down." This dialogue illustrates all you need to register about Hitler’s misplaced beliefs in his own false prophecy: that the German army could have halted the impending fall of Berlin. And as the situation gets more desperate in Berlin, we are exposed to the horrors of the Hitler Youth and the part they were required to play during the final hours of the Nazi regime.
Downfall is a harrowing account of the self-destructive nature of the Nazis’ final days. It is certainly an important venture for German cinema, but ultimately, some viewers may find two books – offer a more rewarding and informative experience – Inside Hitler’s Bunker (on which the film is partly based) or Ian Kershaw’s Death in the Bunker.