The German title Der Untergang has different translations. One is “downfall,” and that’s the title that the film, written by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, has in the United States. Another possible translation is “perdition,” which my dictionary defines as “loss of the soul” and “eternal damnation.” So, there are connotations to the title in German that don’t precisely translate: In English, “downfall” can suggest an element of pathos or bad luck, while “perdition” implies the retribution of divine justice.
This certainly works for me, considering that Downfall concerns itself with recounting the last days of World War II, as Adolf Hitler and his staff cowered like rats in their bunker under Berlin while the Red Army drew closer and closer to the rubble of their Thousand Year Reich. It’s a dramatically fascinating subject, and it’s been filmed before—most memorably, perhaps, in the 1981 TV movie The Bunker, in which Anthony Hopkins played Hitler. But it’s never been done as well, or with such a relentless aura of reality, as Eichinger and Hirschbiegel do it here.
One reason for that, of course, is that it’s in German; an English-speaking Hitler can’t help seeming a little artificial, even when he’s played by someone of the stature of Hopkins (or, in 1973, Alec Guinness).
But, in any language, it would be hard to find a better actor for the role than Bruno Ganz. The physical resemblance is there, and Ganz captures Hitler’s mercurial temper and howling mood swings. The first scene is set in November 1942, when the war is still going well for Hitler; he is friendly and avuncular as he interviews a group of young women to be his private secretary, indulging their tongue-tied awe and putting them at their ease. The job goes to Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), a 22-year-old from Munich, and she giggles like a schoolgirl at the honor. (The real Junge’s book, Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary, is one of the bases of Eichinger’s script, and Junge herself was the subject of the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, released shortly after she died in 2002.)
Then, abruptly, the movie leaps forward in time to April 20, 1945, as Hitler and his minions scurry about the bunker, wincing at the unending artillery barrage. The fatherly Hitler is gone, replaced by a haggard, wild-eyed gnome, stumbling dazed from room to room, his left arm quivering uselessly, poring over maps and deludedly plotting, by turns ordering counterattacks by forces that no longer exist and fuming that the German people deserve to die for losing his war.
Eichinger and Hirschbiegel alternate the action between the increasingly claustrophobic bunker and the streets of Berlin, where children—boys and girls alike—put up a futile resistance to the inexorably advancing Russian tanks, while uniformed gangs prowl the streets, lynching civilians accused of collaborating with the Red Army.
What has given Downfall a certain amount of controversy is the way the film treats the people around Hitler, most of them loyal to the end—although we hear (accurate) reports of Hermann Göring trying to save his skin by cutting a deal with the Americans, and we see Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) musing, “When I meet Churchill, should I give the Nazi salute or shake hands?” (Neither, as it happened; he took cyanide within minutes of being captured.) But most of those around Hitler remain, striking out on their own only after his suicide—and after burning his body so it won’t fall into Russian hands.
Some have complained that the movie implies that this loyalty is somehow admirable, but I think they miss the point. They certainly don’t take into account the meaning of “untergang” as “loss of soul.” But the point is explicit in a documentary epilogue with the real Junge, as she speaks of her willful ignorance of what Hitler was up to and the guilt she felt to the very end.
That’s the “downfall” that Downfall is talking about: the blind loyalty of the German people to an unspeakably evil man. In the end, foul coward that he was, he abandoned them to their fate—even while whining and raging that they had run out on him.