Der Untergang or Downfall as it is known to English-speaking audiences, is a 2004 German film about the last days of Adolf Hitler in his bunker during the battle of Berlin as the city is being slowly destroyed by the Soviet Red Army in the final days of April 1945. The main story is told through the eyes of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge (played by Alexandra Maria Lara), with Adolf Hitler (being played by a magnificent Bruno Ganz) about the final days in the Führerbunker. Not only is Downfall a brilliantly made movie, Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler, showing the dictator as a broken leader taking down the Third Reich with him, earned him several accolades and the scenes where he rants at his Generals, have become famous internet memes.
The movie begins in the Wolf’s Lair in 1942, East Prussia where Hitler is selecting his personal secretary among few young girls who have come from Berlin. He ends up selecting Traudl Junge, who is also from Munich as his personal secretary. The movie now goes forward to 1945, on the eve of Hitler’s 56th birthday, where the Battle of Berlin has begun and the residents of the Führerbunker are woken up by the sound of Katyusha rockets raining down upon the city. In a later meeting of party officials who have come to greet Hitler on his birthday, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler tries to persuade Hitler to leave Berlin, but Hitler refuses. Himmler leaves to negotiate terms with the Western Allies in secret. Later, Himmler’s adjutant Hermann Fegelein (played by Thomas Kretschmann) also attempts to persuade Hitler to flee, but Hitler insists that he will win or die in Berlin and invokes Operation Clausewitz – a general order describing the overall mechanism by which Berlin would be converted to a front line city whereby all Wehrmacht and SS offices in Berlin would be evacuated, the imposition of martial law for the civilian populace, and offences under which the death penalty was authorized and the destruction of thousands of documents that were deemed “essential” to the Nazi war machine, this including documents pertaining to military and civilian logistics and installations, medical research, and other technological research.
We see another character Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck who is ordered to leave Berlin as per Operation Clausewitz, though he persuades an SS general to let him stay in Berlin to treat the injured. In the streets, Hitler Youth child soldier Peter Kranz’s father approaches his son’s unit and tries to persuade him to leave. Peter, who destroyed two enemy tanks and will soon be awarded a medal by Hitler, calls his father a coward and runs away. During this time we see the chaos and destruction and the self-interested behavior among all of the petty functionaries of the Nazi apparatus.
At a meeting in the Führerbunker, Hitler forbids the outnumbered 9th Army to retreat, instead ordering SS commander Felix Steiner’s units to mount a counter-attack based on imaginary divisions on the map. The generals find the orders impossible and irrational. Hitler then awards Hitler Youth members including Peter their medals. In his office, Hitler talks to Minister of Armaments Albert Speer about his scorched earth policy. Speer is concerned about the destruction of Germany’s infrastructure, but Hitler believes the German people left behind are weak and thus deserve death. Meanwhile, Hitler’s companion Eva Braun holds a party in the Reich Chancellery. Fegelein, who is about to become a father, wants to escape from Berlin and tries persuading Eva, his sister-in-law, to leave Berlin with Hitler, but she dismisses him. Artillery fire eventually breaks up the party.
On the battlefield, General Helmuth Weidling is informed he will be executed for allegedly ordering a retreat ignoring Hitler’s express orders not to retreat. Weidling comes to the Führerbunker to clear himself of his charges and inform the delusional generals in the bunker, who are unaware of the actual situation. His action impresses Hitler, who promotes him to oversee all of Berlin’s defences. At another meeting, Hitler learns Steiner did not attack because his unit was too weak. Hitler becomes enraged at what he sees as an act of betrayal and launches into a furious tirade (which becomes the fuel for an epic series of memes), stating that everyone has failed him and denouncing his generals as cowards and traitors, before finally acknowledging that the war is lost, but that he would rather commit suicide than leave Berlin.
As Schenck makes his way towards the Führerbunker, he witnesses civilians being executed by German military police as supposed traitors and the suffering of civilians and sick people in the hospitals awaiting their fate at the hands of a vengeful Red Army. Hitler meanwhile receives a message from Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, requesting state leadership. Hitler declares Göring a traitor, ordering his dismissal from all posts, arrest and execution. Speer makes a final visit to the Führerbunker, and admits to Hitler that he has defied his orders to destroy Germany’s infrastructure. Hitler, however, does not punish Speer, who decides to leave Berlin and has given up trying to fight on.
Meanwhile Peter’s unit is defeated by an onslaught of Red Army units and he runs back to his parents. Hitler, growing more delusional by the hour, imagines more ways for Germany to turn the tide. At dinner, Hitler learns of Himmler’s secret negotiations and orders his execution. He also finds out that Fegelein has deserted his post, and orders that he be executed despite Eva’s pleas. SS physician Ernst-Robert Grawitz asks Hitler’s permission to evacuate for fear of Allied reprisal. Hitler refuses, leading Grawitz to kill himself and his family. We all see the suicides or the untimely deaths of several servants of the Third Reich. The Soviets continue their advance, while Berlin’s supplies run low, and the German morale plummets. Hitler hopes that the 12th Army, led by Walther Wenck, will save Berlin. After midnight, Hitler dictates his last will and testament to Junge, before marrying Eva. The following morning, Hitler learns that the 12th Army is stuck and cannot relieve Berlin. His last will to resist, goes away. However, refusing surrender, Hitler plans his death. He poisons his dog Blondi, bids farewell to the bunker staff, and commits suicide with Eva. The two are burnt in the Chancellery garden as shells explode around the bunker and Goebbels becomes the new Chancellor of Nazi Germany.
General Hans Krebs fails to negotiate a conditional surrender with Soviet General Vasily Chuikov who insists that the Third Reich must surrender unconditionally. Goebbels declares that Germany will not surrender as long as he is alive. Goebbels’ wife Magda, a Nazi fanatic, poisons her six children with cyanide, before committing suicide with Goebbels; Weidling announces unconditional surrender of German forces in Berlin afterwards. Many government and military officials commit suicide after learning of Germany’s defeat, including Krebs. Hitler Youth Peter discovers his parents were executed by the SS death squads, roaming the city, as traitors. Junge meanwhile, leaves the bunker and tries to flee the city but everyone is caught up in the fighting and her colleague goes missing; Peter joins Junge as she sneaks through a group of Soviet soldiers before the two find a bicycle and leave Berlin.
The Downfall isn’t imaginative in its portrayal of the last days of Hitler. Being a movie based on historical events, it can’t afford to be. However, the movie should be seen for Bruno Ganz’s effective portrayal of Adolf Hitler but not as a charismatic, power-mad leader but rather as a weak dictator trying to hold on to his megalomaniacal dream of a Third German Reich. Beset by nervous ticks and health issues, we see an Adolf Hitler who has lost touch with reality, moving absent divisions and armies on maps of territories long lost by the German war machine. Aside from this, it portrays the fanatical defense mounted by Germany until the last days of the Second World War, fighting for a lost cause and against enemies who had overwhelming strength. It also shows the waste of lives for a meaningless cause and a lying, manipulating leader and his crooked ideology. It serves as a warning to the young generation of today, especially those who seek to emulate Nazi ideals or those who call themselves Antifa but are just goons fighting for the simple reason of proving themselves to be better than others.
Watch for Bruno Ganz’s mesmerizing performance as Adolf Hitler