DOWNFALL [GERMAN: DER UNTERGANG] (2004)


Synopsis

Downfall is a German-, Italian-, and Austrian-funded war drama depicting the bizarre final 10 days in the life of Adolf Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz), hunkered down in his Berlin Führerbunker in late April 1945 as the Red Army closes in to seal his doom. Based on several eyewitness histories, the film was written and produced by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel.

Background

Having produced Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s seven-hour visionary epic, Hitler-ein Film aus Deutschland [Hitler: A Film from Germany] (1977), Bernd Eichinger had long wanted to make a more mainstream flm about Adolf Hitler. Developments in 2002 gave him the fresh source material he needed. Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 to 1945, wrote a memoir in 1947-1948 but left it unpublished for more than half a century. Elderly and suffering from terminal cancer in 2001, Junge was finally persuaded by her friend, Anne Frank biographer Melissa Müller, to let her book, Bis Zur Letzten Stunde [Until the Final Hour], be published and to be interviewed for a documentary film by Austrian artist André Heller. Junge’s book came out on 1 January 2002, and Heller’s film, Im toten Winkel-Hitlers Sekretärin [Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary], was released six weeks later. Soon thereafter historian Joachim Fest published a more objective account of the same events: Der Unter gang: Hitler und das Ende des Dritten Reiches [Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich]. Sensing the time was finally right for a docudrama on Hitler-a subject heretofore taboo in Germany-Eichinger wrote a screenplay that detailed the last 10 days of Hitler’s life in the bunker, based primarily on Junge and Fest, but also drawing on a number of other sources: Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich (1969); Gerhard Boldt’s Hitler’s Last Days: An Eye-Witness Account (first English translation 1973); Siegfried Knappe’s 1992 memoir, Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949 (1992); and Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck’s Das Notlazarett unter der Reichskanzlei: Ein Arzt erlebt Hitlers Ende in Berlin [Field Hospital Under the Reich Chancellery: A Doctor Experiences Hitler’s End in Berlin] (1995). After completing a script, Eichinger sent it to director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who agreed to take on the project. Soon thereafter, acclaimed Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) was cast as Hitler. To prepare for the role, Ganz researched the part by visiting a hospital to study patients with Parkinson’s disease (from which Hitler suffered). He also studied an 11-minute tape recording of Hitler in private conversation with Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim secretly made in June 1942. Hirschbiegel also made every effort to achieve authenticity, especially with regard to the look of the Führerbunker. As he told interviewer Carlo Cavagna, “The bunker was constructed at the Bavaria Studios in Munich, following precisely the floor plan. What you see is really how it looked . . . I told them I wanted it exactly the way it was, and did thorough research about even where the table stood, and the position of the chairs, and things like that. And, furthermore, it was a fixed set. You couldn’t take walls out. I couldn’t remove anything, really. There was no, `Let’s take out that wall and use a long lens.’ So it was like we were shooting in the [actual] bunker” (Cavagna, 2005).

Production

Principal photography of Downfall took place over a 12-week period (12 August-15 November 2003). All the interior scenes inside Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia and in the Berlin Führerbunker were shot on sets constructed at Bavaria Studios near Munich. Ironically, Hirschbiegel chose St. Petersburg, Russia, to stand in for war-torn Berlin. On certain streets of the city the architecture was virtually indistinguishable from Hitler’s capital because St. Petersburg’s early 18th-century buildings had been designed by such German architects as Leo von Klenze and Georg Peter Bärenz. The filmmakers found a street with empty buildings and obtained permission to block it off for many weeks. There they built a façade of the war-torn Reich Chancellery and installed Berlin-style street lamps, signs, WWII bombing rubble, wrecked vehicles, etc. They were even permitted to dig up the pavement to create defensive trenches, foxholes, and shell craters. Russians acted as extras, portraying both German and Russian soldiers. Plot Summary The film begins with an interview clip from Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002), featuring the real Traudl Junge (1920-2002) expressing her remorse for admiring Hitler in her youth. Then the film proper begins, showing a courtly Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) hiring Frl. Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) as his secretary at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia in November 1942. The story skips ahead almost two and half years later, to 20 April 1945 (Hitler’s 56th birthday) during the Battle of Berlin. A nearby artillery blast awakens Traudl, Frau Gerda Christian (Birgit Minichmayr), and Frl. Constanze Manziarly (Bettina Redlich), Hitler’s vegetarian cook. In the Führerbunker, Hitler enquires as to the source of the shelling. Gen. Wilhelm Burgdorf (Justus von Dohnanyi) informs him that Berlin is under artillery attack, and Gen. Karl Koller (Hans H. Steinberg) further reports the shelling as indicating that the Red Army is just miles away from the center of the city. In the midst of Hitler’s birthday celebration, two of his officers, SS chief Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) and SS adjutant Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), implore their commander to flee from Berlin, but Hitler decides to stay. In a Berlin street some members of Hitler Youth are preparing an 88-mm flak gun for anti-tank defense. Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia), a member of the Hitler Youth, ignores the pleas of his disabled father (Karl Kranzkowski) when he asks him to desert and save himself. Elsewhere in the city, a physician (Christian Berkel) decides to stay in the face of an evacuation order, persuading an SS general to allow him to continue his work. Eva Braun throws a wild party in the Reich Chancellery featuring loud music, raucous dancing, and copious amounts of alcohol: a surreal bacchanal that ends abruptly when a Russian artillery shell blows out the windows, causing the celebrants to flee back to the Führerbunker. The next day, Gen. Helmuth Weidling (Michael Mendl) is condemned to execution for commanding his troops to retreat west. However, after he explains that there has been a misunderstanding, Weidling is promoted by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (Dieter Mann) to supervise the defense of Berlin. During a military conference Hitler orders a counterattack by Felix Steiner’s combat group to check the Soviet advance. Generals Krebs and Jodl reluctantly inform him that Steiner’s forces are too weak to mount any such attack. Dis missing everyone from the room except for Keitel, Jodl, Krebs, and Burgdorf, Hitler flies into a towering rage against his generals’ alleged treacherousness and incompetence. After his anger is spent, Hitler concedes that he has lost the war, but still refuses to leave Berlin. Instead, he is intent on remaining in his city and commit ting suicide. After seeing hapless Volkssturm conscripts needlessly slaughtered in battle, Gen. Mohnke confronts Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes). Goebbels admits to Mohnke that he does not feel badly for the fallen civilians for they sketched out their fate when they first sided with Hitler. Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) pays a farewell visit to Hitler and admits that he has failed to follow the “scorched earth policy” commands. Displeased, Hitler does not shake Speer’s hand when he leaves. At dinner, Hitler flies into a rage when he dis covers that Himmler has colluded with Count Folke Bernadotte to work out the terms of Hitler’s surrender. Hitler demands that von Greim and his mistress, test pilot Hanna Reitsch (Anna Thalbach), retrieve Himmler and his adjutant, Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann). Upon finding out that Fegelein has deserted, Hitler orders his execution. Reich physician SS Ernst-Robert Grawitz (Christian Hoening), the head of the German Red Cross who infamously performed human medical experiments for the Nazis, begs Hitler’s permission to leave Berlin. When Hitler denies his request, Grawitz kills himself along with his family by setting off a pair of hand grenades over dinner. That night, Fegelein is arrested and executed. Mohnke reports that the Red Army is only 300 to 400 meters from the Reich Chancellery. Hitler reassures his officers that he’ll order Gen. Walther Wenck’s 12th Army to break off from the Western Front and march east to join the fight against the Soviets-an absurd, unworkable proposition. After midnight (29 April 1945), Hitler communicates his last will and testament to Traudl and then marries Eva Braun as a show of gratitude for her loyalty. Finally accepting that the situation is hopeless, Hitler decides to commit suicide to avoid capture. Hitler consumes a last meal and says his goodbyes. He hands his Golden Party Badge Number 1 to Magda Goebbels, who pleads with Hitler to flee Berlin. Instead, Hitler remains and kills himself off-screen. Eva Braun also commits suicide. Their bodies are carried out of the bunker and cremated in a shell crater in the Chancellery garden. Magda and Joseph Goebbels follow suit, murdering their own children and killing themselves off-screen. Military staff members evacuate the bunker, but Krebs and Burgdorf also give in to suicide. Weidling broadcasts to the city that Hitler is dead and declares that he will be seeking an immediate cease fire. Traudl, Gerda, and the remaining SS troops join Schenck, Mohnke, and Günsche as they try to flee the city. Meanwhile, the child soldiers have all been killed-except for Peter, who discovers that his parents have been executed. With Red Army soldiers approaching, Traudl decides to leave the bunker. She and Peter join up and make their way through the ruined streets, avoiding Russian soldiers. At a bridge, Peter finds a discarded bicycle. They both get on it-Peter sitting “side saddle” on the top tube while Traudl pedals-and the pair bicycle away from Berlin. An epilogue describes the fates of the other Führerbunker inhabitants, and the film ends with a final excerpt from Heller’s documentary.

Reception

Downfall premiered in Munich on 8 September 2004 and went into wide release in Germany and Austria a week later. The movie was also showcased at a number of international film festivals, and an extended version was shown in two parts on German television in October 2005. Final box office numbers were impressive; Downfall made $93.6 million against an estimated production cost of 13.5 million ($15.9 million). The film also garnered many film awards, including a 2005 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. Reviews were mostly positive; many were adulatory. Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw exemplified affirmative opinion when he extolled the film as a “superb reconstruction” and avowed that he “could not imagine how a film of Hitler’s last days could possibly be better done.” Kershaw also added his voice to a chorus of praise for Bruno Ganz’s performance: “Of all the screen depictions of the Führer . . . this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler’s voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic” (Kershaw, 2004). Still, some critics panned the film. For example, J. Hoberman found it both “grimly self-important and inescapably trivializing” (Hoberman, 2005). The most scathing critique of Downfall was rendered by another German filmmaker, Wim Wenders. For Wenders, the movie seems to adopt young Traudl Junge’s naive point of view: enthrallment to Hitler’s charisma not sufficiently countered by the bookend clips of the real Junge repudiating her younger self. Wenders also objected to Hirschbiegel’s decision to not show Hitler and Goebbels in the act of committing suicide: “Why can’t we see Hitler and Goebbels dying? Are they not becoming mythical figures by not exhibiting them? Why do they deserve so worthy an outlet, while all the other good and bad Ger mans are [graphically] killed? . . . The film has no opinion on anything, especially of fascism or Hitler . . . so the seducer and the victim find themselves united once again in the arbitrary lack of attitude that makes this film so incredibly annoying. [This] lack of narrative [slant] leads the audience into a black hole, in which they are induced (almost) imperceptibly to see [history] this time somehow from the perspective of the perpetrators, at least with a benevolent understanding for them” (Wenders, 2004).

Reel History Versus Real History

In general terms Downfall ranks as one of the most historically accurate films ever made. It does, however, rearrange the order of some of the events and resorts to some streamlining. Furthermore, Peter Franz, the Hitler Youth boy decorated by Hitler, is a fictional character, so his joining up with Traudl Junge to flee Berlin is also a fabrication. In reality, Junge did not escape Berlin so easily. After hiding out in a cellar for a week with other Führerbunker refugees, Junge was arrested by the Soviets on 9 May 1945, imprisoned and interrogated for the next five months, and later hospitalized with diphtheria. She returned to Munich, her home town, in 1946.

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