DER UNTERGANG (2004)

  • Release Date : 16/9/2004
  • Written By: Bernd Eichinger
  • Cast : Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Juliane Köhler, Ulrich Matthes, Thomas Kretschmann
  • Director : Oliver Hirschbiegel

Der Untergang, also known as Downfall is a 2004 drama directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. The film chronicles the last few days of Adolf Hitler’s (Bruno Ganz) life living in an underground bunker as seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), his last and often referred to as “favorite” secretary. The film starts in 1942 with Junge’s interview for the post and ends with her escape from Berlin as it is taken over by the incoming Russian Army. Der Untergang is 2 hours and 36 minutes long and most of it unfolds inside the bunker. It is mostly about a bunch of people talking and towards the end shooting themselves in the head. There are neither any significant war actions nor thrilling dramatic maneuvers that are a hallmark of films about World War II.

Having said that, Der Untergang is a gripping and exhilarating drama that is hard to ignore. The story moves at a leisurely pace but there is so much happening and there are so many characters involved that had it been any faster, it would end up being incomprehensible. The film vividly documents not only every major meeting and planning or for that matter a lack of it, it also shows us with great care Hitler’s depleting mental state as he constantly keeps pointing to resources and armies that he doesn’t have at his disposal to come and save his order. The manner in which he deals with his generals and how he approaches what is apparently the end of his line is heartening to watch.

Der Untergang is extremely well directed and I say this not only because of the performances that Hirschbiegel is able to extract from the actors but also because of the manner in which he lays out the whole film. A 2 hour 36 minutes long film could so easily turn boring if it was not kept visually and aesthetically fresh. Hirschbiegel aided by Rainer Klausmann (cinematography), Hans Funck (Editing), and Bernd Lepel (Production Design) creates an atmospheric and arresting film that makes you even interested in watching people pace through rooms as they discuss politics.

 

The screenplay by Bernd Eichinger is an amalgamation of two books namely Inside Hitler’s Bunker (by Joachim Fest) and Until the Final Hour (by Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller). However, the script is so coherent and addictive that I don’t think anyone will ever think it to be an amalgamation of multiple sources. The manner in which the tale progresses, it effortlessly gives the feeling of being seen through the eyes of one person (Traudl Junge). The film starts with a real interview with Junge who comments on her naivety to have pledged allegiance to a mass murderer like Hitler but also cites the aura and halo surrounding the man and his work that made most Germans blind to his atrocities and made them pledge their allegiances to him without question.

As the film progresses, we see Traudl’s character, through a chain of events, change from being someone who wanted to die alongside the man herself to being someone who takes great risks to escape and make something out of her own life. Certain scenes in this respect will forever remain etched in my memory. A dining scene where Traudl witnesses Hitler deliver one of his hate speeches about the Jews and why is it only just that they are exterminated, is splendidly captured. Through her expressions, Alexandra Maria Lara is able to make it abundantly clear that everyone who hung around with Hitler till the end did it to remains under the sense of protection and cover that the Nazism had provided them for so long. Some of them were in fact forced to stay.

The film delivers a knockout punch in the sequences building up to Hitler’s end and how he goes about doing it. But even at the very end, he doesn’t cease to be the vengeful man that he was. That’s a point that is firmly put forth when he has his wife’s brother executed for taking sides with Himmler (who is trying to save the Reich by surrendering and initiating politics with the Allies) and not staying in the bunker with him.

Der Untergang did for Bruno Ganz what Gandhi did for Ben Kingsley. He literally metamorphs into the man and keeps his essay so true to the real character that at many junctures the thin line between the real and the interpretation is played with. Ganz knocks it out of the park with his expressions, interpretations, and even certain subtle nudges here and there that go on to add incredible authenticity to the role. The trembling hands. The repeating phrases and the helpless smiles here and there add a heartbreaking dimension to one of the greatest villains of all time.

The Bunker is a 1981 CBS television film directed by George Schaefer and starring Anthony Hopkins as Adolf Hitler. The film is similar to Der Untergang in plot and execution and I watched it almost instantly after my second viewing of Der Untergang. I was shocked at how amateurish and overblown I found Hopkins’ performance in a role that brought him many awards and accolades. It was not so much about Hopkins’s acting ineptitudes as it was about Bruno Ganz’s spectacular essay. He has made the character of Hitler his own and I don’t believe anyone ever will be able to do anything better with the role than what he had achieved.

 

Alexandra Maria Lara is terrific in her act as Junge. She plays a character who cannot say much verbally but has to express her emotions only through her eyes and subtle gestures. She does an immaculate job with the role. One of the high points of the film is her camaraderie with Hitler’s wife Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler). I loved her act even more towards the end when she knows exactly what is about to happen and still has to keep a straight face. The scene where she is shown feeding the kids when Hitler and Eva are in another room about to commit suicide, speaks volumes about her essay. Juliane Köhler is able to bring out the tragic eccentricity of Braun as she tries hard to keep a smiling face and party as if there was no tomorrow knowing full well her fate and the fate of the nation. She is concerned enough to point out to others even at that moment to call her Mrs. Hitler, having married the man just hours before after being his companion for 15 years. These aren’t easy things to put forth through a performance but Köhler successfully achieves what she sets out to.

Der Untergang is movie-making at its finest. It is the kind of film that not only gives us an exhilarating picture of one of the most talked-about stages of world history but also through various perspectives gives us a peek into the psyche of a man who has been hated, loathed and yet loved at the same time. Der Untergang lost to “The Sea Inside” in the 77th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language film category. This will remain a tragedy of the proportion of “Forest Gump” winning Best Picture over “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Pulp Fiction” in the 67th Academy Awards.

It is easily one of the best biographical films ever made. It has a performance that alone is enough to merit a view or two for the film. It is entertaining. It is enlightening. It is relevant and paints an honest picture leaving out all the fluff and jingoism. It is heartbreaking in more ways than one. For lovers of cinema, Der Untergang is a must-watch.

Rating: 5/5 (5 out of 5 Stars)

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