Downfall (Der Untergang) (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This film has established quite a reputation for one which has not been widely seen outside of Germany. It is a historical recreation of the last days of Hitler inside the bunker, as based on the recollections of some people who were actually there, especially Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, who wrote a book on the subject. It was notorious even before filming began, primarily because it was the first major international film project made in Germany to deal primarily with Hitler. Up until this point, the Germans have been relying on their former enemies to tell their story. The film's notoriety was magnified by a treatment that showed some of the Nazis to be sympathetic or honorable, and showed Hitler to have moments of kindness for Eva, Speer, his secretary, the Goebbels children, and his dog.

Frankly, I don't know why anyone found that to be objectionable. Life would be much simpler if the villains would always clearly appear to be villains, so we could know to avoid them. What makes the process of politics scary is that evil comes packaged in a way that is not substantially different from good, and that all of us can find ourselves deluded into following monsters. The obviously deranged crackpot like Kim Jong-Il is the exception, not the rule, and I suppose even Kim has admirers who find him to be a lovely guy. If Hitler had always appeared to be a ranting lunatic, he would not have inspired a nation to follow him. He obviously had to have some kind of charisma, both in interpersonal relationships and in his public speeches, even if we would prefer to think of him as a scheming, evil, simpleton.

The film does make Hitler into a pathetic character. He consults his battle plans and moves imaginary armies into position. His advisors and generals humor him, or kowtow sycophantically, often sneering behind his back. The script does not, however, make the leap from pathetic to sympathetic or empathetic and even if it can be interpreted to have done so, one must concede that it was done in an attempt to tell the true story about real people. A serious treatment can't portray the Nazis as they were shown in the Warner Brothers cartoons of the 40s. Although we might like to think that Hitler was a member of a separate species which resembles humans except for the extra evil genes, the sad fact of the matter is that although he was a monster, he was also one of us. The act of demonstrating that monsters grow inside of us is probably reason enough to have made the film.

The two most powerful and famous men in Germany at the time were Hitler and Goebbels, and the two actors who played these parts were absolutely uncanny. Bruno Ganz managed to become Hitler in every way, from the shaking hand, down to that rough-hewn Austrian accent. As for the other guy, I don't think they hired an actor. I think that guy WAS Goebbels come back to life. He sounded exactly like him, voice and accent, and he even looked exactly like him, same rat face and all, except that he was several inches too tall.

The film is not historically reliable in that it relies on the perspective of a few people who viewed people and events in a limited context. The story is not based upon the work of a scholarly historian who is trying carefully to sift through conflicting evidence and present all the nuances, but rather on subjective observations, like those of Hitler's secretary. Some of the people she finds sympathetic and honorable are not generally thought of in those terms. Here is the overview of an expert, David Irving, whose comprehensive analysis of the film's characters and events is written in such a concise and down-to-earth manner that it should make an interesting and intelligible read even if you have not seen the film.  

Der Untergang is a great movie, one of the best of 2004, but I don't think you need me to tell you that. It has won a bushel basket full of awards, is rated an impressive 8.5 at IMDb (#77 of all time), and provides further evidence of a resurgent German film industry that is starting to turn out world class movies of many different types: from Tom Twkver's hip films; to gentle, sympathetic comedies like Good-bye, Lenin; to serious historical dramas like this film. If you have any interest in World War Two, or Hitler's final days, this is mandatory viewing. I found it completely fascinating, and got absorbed in every detail, even though the film is 2:35 long.



  • No features except the original theatrical trailer
  • The widescreen transfer is anamorphically enhanced
  • There are interviews with the actors (in German with sub-titles, of course)
  • The full-length commentary track is also superlative. The director explains each character when he or she appears, and also provides many additional historical anecdotes and explanations.


Maria Semenova is topless in two scenes, as Fegelein's mistress.

Two unknown women are seen topless in a bit of "gallows revelry" - a mad drunken party in which the participants know they are doomed by the approaching Russian artillery fire.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: three and a half stars. James Berardinelli 3.5/4, Roger Ebert 4/4, Owen Gleiberman B

  • It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

  • British consensus out of four stars: also between three and a half and four stars. Mail 8/10, Telegraph 10/10, Independent 10/10, Guardian 8/10, Times 10/10, Sun 8/10, Express 10/10, Mirror 8/10, FT 8/10, BBC 4/5.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.5/10 (#77 of all time, as I write this.)
  • It grossed about five million dollars in the USA, which is not so bad for a sub-titled German film. Even the brilliant Run Lola Run grossed only $7 million. The highly acclaimed Das Boot pulled in $11 million, and Good-Bye, Lenin grossed $4 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+ if you don't speak German, a very well made film for a limited audience of history buffs who are willing to wrestle with sub-titles. I think the score should be B or higher if German is your native language, because Downfall was not just an artistic success, but also a mainstream hit in Germany, selling 4.5 million tickets in its theatrical run, and finishing as the #5 film at the German box office in 2004 - ahead of Spiderman-2!!

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