Berlin, April 1945. As fighting rages in the streets, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) retreats to his bunker with his closest confidantes. Among them is 25 year-old Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler's private secretary since 1942. Despite blinding evidence that Berlin can no longer be held, Hitler refuses to leave the city and berates those around him for having failed in their duties. While the full force of the Allied advance shatters the last remnants of resistance, the Fuehrer lays down plans for his final exit.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
The first German film to focus solely on the final days of Hitler since G.W. Pabst's Der Letzte Akt (The Last Act) in 1956 arrives in cinemas here almost 60 years to the day since the capitulation of the Reich. The only other major film on the topic was Ennio de Concini's Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), in which Alec Guinness gave an unusually off-key performance in a wholly unsatisfying account of events.
It's a different story here. Bruno Ganz essays Hitler with a finely tuned balance of madness and humanity that comes as close as possible to being the definitive interpretation of history's most loathsome figure. The talking point of this riveting two and a half-hour drama is the human dimension afforded this monster. Some audiences will view this as an unforgivable sympathy, but the overall tone of Olivier Hirschbiegel's film is far from apologetic. By giving us a Hitler with an emotional range beyond the purely malevolent, we gain access to not only him but also those around him in the death-dive of the Reich.
Played by a roster of Germany's finest acting talent, the figures of Joseph Goebbles (Ulrich Matthes), Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen), Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) and the little-known secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) are given full-blooded characterisations and make this far from a one-man show. It's through Junge's eyes that much of the story unfolds. Played by Alexandra Maria Lara with a vitality and innocence that makes Hitler's appeal to ordinary Germans come alive, Junge is the accessible entry point for us in the audience and the screenplay intelligently spins many of the turning points around her perspective.
Although it sometimes has the feel of a high-quality Cable movie rather than a fully-fledged big screen drama, Downfall is meticulously performed and has been painstakingly researched to present the most accurate version of these events we're ever likely to see. Producer Bernd Eichinger also wrote the screenplay (an unusual combination of credits) and based his work on the books "Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich" by Joachim Fest and "Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary" by Traudl Junge and Melissa Mueller. His success is not limited to the provocative depiction of Hitler. What emerges over the extended running time is a powerful dissection of a totalitarian regime on the brink of destruction and its effect on those who were part of the machinery. The most memorable of the latter is Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch), whose ice-cold poisoning of her children while her husband waits outside is a chilling evocation of blind devotion in the service of a malignant cause. As an examination of historical events that still beg disbelief and as an intimate human drama, Downfall delivers all that it promises.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
What is absolutely mesmerising about Downfall is the treatment of its subject matter, as if we were given a glimpse into Hitler's last days - and with it his Nazi empire - for the first time. After almost 60 years and countless docos and dramas about Hitler and the war, Oliver Hirschbiegel's film is the most convincing, the most insightful and the most shattering.
I know I rabbit on about context all the time, so forgive me for again pointing to the value of context, which Hirschbiegel provides in abundance. There is the war context, the political context, the human context. When we see the two kinds of devotees to Hitler's National Socialist Germany, and world, revealed so eloquently as here, we see a new shaft of understanding light into the Germany that allowed this crazed vegetarian house painter to take over the reins of power. We glimpse the varied reasons why innocents like his secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) were swept away with the moment, and also why dedicated followers like the Goebbels - who carefully killed their own children to spare them the horrors of living in a world without National Socialism - helped drive the Third Reich into its furious, hate driven frenzy.
The film is technically excellent, with a cohesive and clear structure, superb editing and a fitting score. Performances are riveting; in a double sided coin performance, Bruno Ganz captures the shrieking fanatic and the introverted madman of Hitler, as well as the occasionally sane, dog lover next door.
In the clear headed, meticulous process of documenting the final days and hours of Adolf Hitler, Downfall also distresses us by taking us into the brutality of the battle for Berlin. And the film has to distress us, it has to pick off the scab, it has to pose its questions about human nature and the nature of politics otherwise it would be an empty and forgettable gesture. And it's not that; it's an unforgettable film about people caught up in a war that killed 50 million and changed the world. You may not enjoy it, but you must see it.
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A FILM OF GREAT CONSEQUENCE
CAST: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich, Thomas Kretschmann, Michael Mendl
PRODUCER: Bernd Eichinger
DIRECTOR: Oliver Hirschbiegel
SCRIPT: Bernd Eichinger (Based on the books Inside Hitlers Bunker by Joachim Fest and Uti the Final Hour by Tradul Junge and Melissa Mueller)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rainer Klausmann
EDITOR: Hans Funck
MUSIC: Stephan Zacharias
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Bernd Lepel
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 21, 2005