(Der Untergang)

Downfall (Der Untergang)
Made in: Germany, Russia (location)
Language: German
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexandria Maria Lara
Year: 2004

Based on the books Bis zur letzten stunden (Until the Final Hour) by Traudl Junge, and Hitler, eine Karriere (Hitler, a Career) by Joachim C. Fest

Synopsis: An intimate look at Adolf Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz), one of history's most reviled figures, Downfall chronicles the final ten days of the Third Reich.

Told from the point of view of Traudl Junge, who was Hitler's personal secretary at the time, most of the film takes place in a fortified bunker in the government district of a besieged and crumbling Berlin.

With the Soviet Army closing in, Junge witnesses the moments leading to the downfall of Hitler, which culminates in his dramatic suicide.

The Good: Gripping and intense, Downfall has an incredibly authentic feel. Although most of the film was shot in St. Petersburg, Russia, this is perhaps the most realistic portrayal of Adolf Hitler in recent cinematic memory. Oftentimes I felt as though I were watching the real Hitler, which is a testament to Bruno Ganz's acting abilities.

Performances by the large supporting cast, notably Juliane Köhler (playing Eva Braun), Ulrich Matthes (playing Joseph Goebbles), and Corinna Harfouch (playing Magda Goebbels), are outstanding.

School books, lectures, and countless History Channel documentaries and PBS specials accurately portray Der Führer as a monster. But director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall goes a step further and portrays Hitler as a human being.

Before you start sending me hate mail, bear in mind that showing Hitler's human side does nothing to garner sympathy for the man. No, in fact, it makes him even more frightening.

In this film, as Hitler's state of mind slips in and out of reality, he seems consciously aware of the years of evil he's embraced. He realizes his hatred inflamed the imagination of an entire country, garnered loyal followers, and brought him immense power.

But in the face of inevitable defeat, Hitler is revealed as a man enslaved and imprisoned, both figuratively and literally, by that very same power. And as a result, he fights hardest to maintain control when it is most futile to do so.

Equally compelling, and at times chilling, is the detail shown to Hitler's closest associates. The top ranking German officers, divided between supporting their leader to the very end and outright betraying him, more importantly reflect the extent of Hitler's destructive influence (or ability to engender fear?).

Their humanity is deeply explored, and much of the film concentrates on their gripping personal dramas in the face of Germany's inevitable defeat.

Oliver Hirschbiegel does a superb job showing us the complex nature of evil. By showing us not only the evil done by a very human Hitler, we also see the human side of his followers.

They are sympathetic characters, but because of the choices they've made over the course of Hitler's reign, are complicit in some of the worst atrocities ever recorded in history.

It seems we are meant to identify with them, and if we dare, to see that we, too, are every bit as capable of doing great evil over time by either choosing, or refusing, to act.

The Bad: At around 156 minutes, Downfall is a long film that feels even longer. Although you know what happens to Hitler because of history (at least I hope you do), this film requires you to pay close attention to the large number of peripheral characters (which are easy to lose track of) in order to get the full impact of the story.

This is a sobering and emotionally draining film, so don't watch it late at night before trundering off to bed.

Who would like this movie: Without question, I'd recommend this to history enthusiasts and fans of foreign films.

Bear in mind, however, that this film does not dumb down anything for the audience. Rather, it assumes you have more than just basic knowledge of World War Two Germany and members of Hitler's inner circle.

On that note, Downfall is a very meticulously made, well-researched film. In order to appreciate its full meaning, take the time to go through some history books first.

(3 1/2 out of 4 stars)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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