This article is part of the World War II Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Thanks for letting me take part!
Downfall (Der Untergang in German) is only 15 years old but already one of the classic films about World War II. This gritty and hyper-realistic drama, depicting the final days of the war in Europe and especially the end of the Nazi regime, was noteworthy in its time because of its “humanizing” depiction of Adolf Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz, and its propensity to spawn millions of comic “Hitler Reacts” meme videos. But now it’s recognized as a serious and important war film, perhaps even more cogent than Saving Private Ryan, which is (undeservedly, I think) often called the “best” World War II film. Downfall is nothing like Ryan, and indeed nothing like any other war movie you’ve probably ever seen. In many important ways it’s less about World War II and Hitler than it is about what happens when people believe fervently in an unreal world, and how difficult is for them when reality, as it always must, crashes down the walls of their illusions.
The film centers around events in the Führerbunker, one of the central narratives of World War II, but also expands its reach outside of that location and that story. It’s April 1945 and Hitler (Ganz), struggling mightily with the now undeniable fact that he has lost the war, has pulled his inner circle into a concrete hole beneath the streets of Berlin as the Soviets lay siege to the city. Chief among Hitler’s last remaining cronies are his spaced-out girlfriend Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), his grotesque propaganda minister Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), the sometimes-has-a-second thought armaments minister Speer (Heino Ferch), and particularly his waifish secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), about whom I’ll say more later. Outside the bunker, Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenk (Christian Berkel) is trying to save lives, and 12-year-old Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia) is trying to return to his family’s home. As time grows short and the Russians draw ever nearer, each of these characters faces essentially the same choice: stay and die, run away and live, surrender, or commit suicide. The different choices made by the different characters are all intensely personal, and every one of them, except perhaps Hitler’s, is emotionally and morally agonizing.
The most famous scene from Downfall is this one, Hitler’s meltdown, which was the source of all the “Hitler reacts” videos. This did really happen, on April 23, 1945, when Hitler was told an attack he was counting on had failed.
The story of “the bunker” has been told numerous times in film and TV, so often that it’s almost a trope. In a brief joke in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, set in a movie studio cafeteria, a Brooklyn-accented actor in a Hitler uniform tells a friend, “They lose me right after the bunker scene!” The Führerbunker story was told, quite badly, in the 1973 film Hitler: The Last Ten Days, starring Alec Guinness as the dictator; it was done again in the 1981 TV movie The Bunker, with Anthony Hopkins as Hitler and Richard Jordan as Speer; and it was repeated yet again in the 1989 miniseries War and Remembrance, featuring British playwright Stephen Berkoff in the most unhinged, scenery-chewing portrayal of Hitler ever put on film. It would be damning with faint praise to say that Downfall is much better than all of these, but it would also be comparing apples and oranges. These lesser films were interested in the bunker story for its own sake. Downfall is about something deeper and more philosophical. It’s really about perception of reality, and that is its strength.
Hitler and his Nazi Party–no, they were not leftists–came to power in Germany in 1933 by constructing and exploiting an alternative reality, one that the German people were eager to buy into. The dream involved the grievance of Germany, defeated in World War I and kept supine by the Treaty of Versailles, and the illusion that it had happened because Germany was “stabbed in the back” by the enemy in its midst: the Jews. Hitler promised first to rebuild the German people’s self-esteem, which he did, and then to lead Germany to its completely made-up “destiny” as the world’s dominant power, mainly through force of arms. Stalingrad was a signpost on the road to Hitler’s ultimate failure, but even as German armies faced reverses in the field and Allied bombs rained down on German cities, many of those who believed most fervently in Hitler’s folderol were slow to accept reality. What happened in Berlin in 1945, and especially in the Bunker, was the final reckoning: the last moment at which the most dedicated Nazis could continue to pretend that their fantasy world was the world they really lived in. Downfall is the story of that rude awakening.
Desperate to avoid reality, Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) throws an impromptu party for the survivors of the bunker. Fiddling while Rome–or Berlin–burns?
The characterizations and performances in the film reflect this theme. Let’s take Juliane Köhler’s Eva Braun. As vapid and clueless as she is foolish, Braun defies reality by throwing a party in the bunker and pretending everything is going just swimmingly. The blast of bombs and the constant stream of warnings from the military men that the end is near simply don’t make an impression on her. Köhler’s “deer in headlights” portrayal in these moments is utterly perfect. Historically we know very little about Eva Braun, except that she spent most of her adult life waiting around for Hitler. Unquestionably she was one of the last believers in him. Her marriage to Hitler, performed on their very last day alive (April 29, 1945), feels in the film like less of a comforting moment and more like yet another desperate attempt to stave off the intrusion of reality for just a few hours longer. I don’t doubt that this is what it must have been like in reality.
One of the most horrifying sequences in Downfall comes straight from history. Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) has brought herself and her six young children to join her husband in the bunker. Grimly resigned to the conclusion that a life not under National Socialism is not worth living, she calmly administers poison to her kids when it looks like there’s no hope left. Yet this awful act occurs only after Speer tries (unsuccessfully) to appeal to the better angels of her nature by telling her, “I can’t believe you really want this,” and even after Magda herself has a shrieking breakdown that reveals her own inner turmoil at what she’s about to do. She too is starting to see reality breaking in, but it so terrifies her that she decides destroying herself and her own children is preferable to dealing honestly with it. This really happened, and not just to the Goebbels family. Successive waves of mass suicides, perhaps as many as 7,000 of them, rippled through Germany in the days around the end of the war. When faced with either negotiating reality or exiting life entirely, many thousands of people chose the latter.
Though its main focus is on what happened in the bunker, Downfall is surprisingly realistic in depicting the broader Battle of Berlin, as in this gripping scene.
At its heart, though, Downfall is less about Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazis, and is mainly the story of the secretary, Traudl Junge. Anyone who saw the 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, or read Junge’s memoir on which it was based, will instantly recognize her perceptions as the backbone of the Downfall story. The film in fact opens with her being selected, in December 1942, as one of Hitler’s new secretaries, and it closes with a clip from the 2002 documentary. The real Junge was 22 when this happened and not motivated by politics. She needed a job. Her story, as she told it both in the 1973 documentary The World at War and the 2002 film (which consists entirely of a 90-minute interview with her), hinges upon her naivete: she simply didn’t understand the monstrous evil that Hitler was doing, and regretted the rest of her life that she’d helped advance it. She lived in a fantasy world and the fall of Berlin shattered the fantasy. Downfall, which came out after the real Junge’s death, is basically her epitaph.
Perhaps I’m cynical, but I’ve never accepted this interpretation of Traudl Junge’s story at face value. She claims, probably truthfully, that she knew nothing about the Holocaust (a subject deliberately avoided in Downfall). She states at the end of the film:
Of course, the horrors, of which I heard in connection of the Nuremberg trials; the fate of the 6 million Jews, their killing and those of many others who represented different races and creeds, shocked me greatly, but, at that time, I could not see any connection between these things and my own past. I was only happy that I had not personally been guilty of these things and that I had not been aware of the scale of these things.
But drilling into the history of what happened in the bunker, it’s hard to accept Junge’s complete moral exoneration, even granting how young she was and how apparently incurious she tried to be about what was going on around her. Hours before he shot himself, Hitler dictated to Junge a vituperative, venom-dripping screed that was supposed to be his “personal testament” in which he essentially begged the future leaders of Germany to uphold his racial policies after he was gone and continue his repressions against the Jews, which he stated were “far more humane than they deserved.” This is so telling because it lays bare the central mission of Hitler’s life: to hate, kill and destroy Jews.
The real Traudl Junge gave a feature-length interview in 2002 about her experiences, which became the film Blind Spot. Here is the trailer for it. She died shortly after appearing in the film.
So at the end it wasn’t really about the self-esteem of the German people, who Hitler denounced as undeserving of any mercy because they’d failed him. It wasn’t about Germany’s God-given destiny, as he’d said many times, to rule Europe and essentially the world. It was about racial hatred. I can’t imagine even a 24-year-old Traudl Junge, typing with quivering hands in the bunker with artillery thudding overhead, hearing these words and not understanding, in the smallest measure, that this was ultimately what the whole thing was about. This was not the only memo she’d typed for Hitler that contained telling clues as to what he had done and why he’d done it. She worked for him for two years. She knew him, in many ways, better than anyone. This should not have been a surprise.
If Downfall would have taken this step–and shown us even the smallest recognition that Traudl Junge might in fact have understood, even in a tiny degree, what she was involved in–it might have been even more true to its thesis about reality and unreality. Downfall is a flawed movie, for this as well as a few other comparatively minor quibbles, but it succeeds more broadly than any picture ever has at portraying the psychological and emotional conditions of what it was like to live through the end of the Nazi regime.
The battle for Berlin in 1945 was one of the most destructive battles in the history of warfare. Here is actual footage showing what the city looked like just after the events portrayed in Downfall.
We today can take many lessons from Downfall. We live in a time where the construction and investiture of unreal worlds, both cultural and political, is on the rise, and the battle lines between unreal worlds and unwelcome reality are becoming ever sharper. The phenomenon of climate change denial and the toxic legacy of the “GamerGate” controversy of 2014 are but two examples. Downfall shows us that when people build unreal worlds and live in them, things can get very ugly when they’re forced to face reality. This, more than Hitler, World War II or Nazis, is what the movie is really about. That’s why it resonates in a way the other bunker stories, like Hitler: The Last Ten Days, never could. We ignore its lessons at our peril.
The poster for Downfall is presumably copyright (C) 2004 by Constantin Film Company. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.