Downfall (2004 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Oliver Hirschbiegel|
|Produced by||Bernd Eichinger|
|Screenplay by||Bernd Eichinger|
|Music by||Stephan Zacharias|
|Edited by||Hans Funck|
|Distributed by||Constantin Film (Germany, Austria)|
01 Distribution (Italy)
|Box office||$92.2 million|
Downfall (German: Der Untergang) is a 2004 historical war drama film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by producer Bernd Eichinger. The film stars Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Matthias Habich, and Thomas Kretschmann. It is set during the final days of Adolf Hitler (portrayed by Ganz) and the subsequent surrender of Berlin to the Soviet Army. It is based on the books Inside Hitler's Bunker by historian Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour by Hitler's former private secretary Traudl Junge, among other accounts of the period.
Principal photography took place in Berlin, Munich, and in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with a €13.5 million production budget. As the film is set in and around the Führerbunker, Hirschbiegel used eyewitness accounts, survivors' memoirs, and other historical sources during production to reconstruct the look and atmosphere of 1940s Berlin.
The film premiered on September 16, 2004 in Germany, where it stirred controversy due to the portrayal of Hitler as a human being. It later received a wide theatrical release across Europe under its production company Constantin Film. The film grossed over $92 million, received generally favorable reviews from critics, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Academy Awards. The scene where Hitler displays rage after Felix Steiner fails to obey his orders has spawned a series of Internet memes, initially prompting Constantin Film to order their takedown due to perceived copyright infringement.
In November 1942, at the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, Chancellor of Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler selects Traudl Junge as his personal secretary. Three years later, in April 1945, the Red Army has surrounded Berlin, pushing Germany back. On Hitler's 56th birthday, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler tries to persuade him to leave Berlin, but Hitler refuses. Himmler leaves to negotiate terms with the Western Allies in secret. Later, Himmler's adjutant Hermann Fegelein also attempts to persuade Hitler to flee, but Hitler insists that he will win or die in Berlin.
SS Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck is ordered to leave Berlin 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 Peter's unit and tries persuading 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.
At a meeting in the Führerbunker, Hitler forbids the outnumbered 9th Army to retreat, ordering SS commander Felix Steiner's units to mount a counter-attack. The generals find the orders impossible and irrational. Above ground, Hitler awards Peter his medal, hailing Peter as braver than his generals. In his office, Hitler talks to Minister of Armaments Albert Speer about his scorched earth policy. Speer is concerned of the destruction of German infrastructure, but Hitler believes the German people left behind are weak and deserve death. Meanwhile, Hitler's companion Eva Braun holds a party in the Reich Chancellery. Fegelein 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. Weidling comes to the Führerbunker to clear himself. His action impresses Hitler, who promotes him to oversee all Berlin defenses. At another meeting, Hitler learns Steiner could not implement his orders because his unit was too weak. Hitler becomes enraged at what he saw as betrayal, stating that everyone has failed him and denounces his generals as cowards and traitors before finally acknowledging that the war is lost, but that he would rather commit suicide than leave Berlin.
Schenck witnesses mass civilian casualties and executions as supposed traitors. Hitler receives a message from Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring requesting state leadership. Hitler declares Göring a traitor, ordering his arrest. Speer then admits to Hitler that he has defied his orders. Hitler, however, does not punish Speer who decides to leave Berlin. Peter's unit is defeated and he runs back to his parents. Hitler imagines more ways for Germany to turn the tide. At dinner, Hitler learns of Himmler's secret negotiations and orders his execution and also finds out that Fegelein has deserted Berlin, having him executed despite Eva's pleas. SS physician Ernst-Robert Grawitz, responsible for Nazi human medical experiments, asks Hitler's permission to evacuate for fear of Allied reprisal. Hitler refuses, leading Grawitz to kill himself and his family.
The Soviets continue their advance, Berlin's supplies run low, and German morale plummets. Hitler hopes that the 12th Army will save Berlin. After midnight, Hitler dictates his last will and testament to Traudl, before marrying Eva. The following morning, Hitler learns that the 12th Army is stuck and cannot help. Refusing surrender, Hitler plans his death. He administers poison to his dog Blondi, bids farewell to the bunker staff, and commits suicide with Eva. The two are cremated in the Chancellery garden.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels assumes Chancellorship and General Hans Krebs meets with Soviet General Vasily Chuikov to negotiate a conditional surrender, but returns without success. Goebbels orders that the SS will not surrender as long as he is alive. Goebbels' wife Magda poisons her six children with cyanide, before committing suicide with Goebbels; Weidling announces unconditional surrender of German forces in Berlin; Peter discovers his parents were executed; and the Germans who had worked in Hitler's bunker commit suicide after learning of Germany's defeat. Traudl leaves the bunker and tries to flee the city; Peter joins her as she sneaks through a group of Soviet soldiers before the two find a bicycle and leave Berlin.
- Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler. Ganz conducted four months of research by studying an 11-minute recording of Hitler in private conversation with Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim in order to properly mimic Hitler's conversational voice and Austrian dialect. Ganz also became convinced that Hitler had Parkinson's Disease, and decided to visit a hospital to observe patients with the disorder.
- Alexandra Maria Lara as Traudl Junge
- Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels
- Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels
- Juliane Köhler as Eva Braun
- Thomas Kretschmann as SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein
- Heino Ferch as Oberbefehlsleiter Albert Speer
- Christian Berkel as SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Ernst-Günther Schenck
- André Hennicke as SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke
- Götz Otto as SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Günsche
- Ulrich Noethen as Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler
- Christian Redl as Generaloberst Alfred Jodl
- Rolf Kanies as Chief of the Army General Staff General der Infanterie Hans Krebs
- Michael Mendl as General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling
- Matthias Habich as SS-Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr. Werner Haase
- Birgit Minichmayr as Gerda Christian
- Dietrich Hollinderbäumer as Generalfeldmarschall Robert Ritter von Greim
- Dieter Mann as Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel
- Justus von Dohnányi as General der Infanterie Wilhelm Burgdorf
- Gerald Alexander Held as Walther Hewel
- Donevan Gunia as Peter Kranz
- Thomas Thieme as Reichsleiter Martin Bormann
- Thomas Limpinsel (de) as SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz Linge
- Hans Steinberg as General der Flieger Karl Koller
- Heinrich Schmieder as SS-Oberscharführer Rochus Misch
- Thorsten Krohn as SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger
- Jurgen Tonkel as SS-Obersturmbannführer Erich Kempka
- Igor Romanov as SS-Obersturmbannführer Peter Högl
- Igor Bubenchikov as SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Schädle
- Michael Brandner as Hans Fritzsche
- Christian Hoening as SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst-Robert Grawitz
- Anna Thalbach as Hanna Reitsch
- Bettina Redlich as Constanze Manziarly
- Devid Striesow as Feldwebel Fritz Tornow
- Elizaveta Boyarskaya as Erna Flegel
- Mathias Gnädinger as Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring
- Alexander Slastin as Soviet Colonel General Vasily Chuikov
- Elena Dreyden as Inge Dombrowski
Producer/screenwriter Eichinger wanted to make a film about Hitler and the Nazi party for 20 years but became perplexed after its enormity prevented him from doing so. After reading a publication about the book by historian Joachim Fest called Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich (1945), he became inspired by Fest's academic writings and included them in the film. Eichinger also based the film on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries, called Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary (1947); he used the books Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer, one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials to survive both the war and the Nuremberg trials; Hitler's Last Days: An Eye–Witness Account, by Gerhard Boldt; Das Notlazarett unter der Reichskanzlei: Ein Arzt erlebt Hitlers Ende in Berlin by Doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck; and Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936–1949 (1992) by Siegfried Knappe as references when writing the screenplay.
After completing the script for the film, Eichinger sent it to Hirschbiegel who agreed to helm the project. Hirschbiegel said that the film-makers sought to give Hitler a three-dimensional personality, telling NBC: "We know from all accounts that he was a very charming man – a man who managed to seduce a whole people into barbarism."
Filming and design
The film was produced on a €13.5 million budget. Principal photography lasted 12 weeks, in the period from September to November 2003, under the working title Sunset. Since the film is set mostly in and around the Führerbunker, Hirschbiegel said he made an effort to accurately reconstruct the look and atmosphere of World War II through eyewitness accounts, survivors' memoirs, and other historical sources by filming in the cities of Berlin, Munich, and Saint Petersburg, Russia, where an industrial district slum along the Obvodny Canal was used to imitate the setting for Berlin.
The bunker and Hitler's Wolf's Lair was constructed at Bavaria Studios in Munich. One CGI scene was created for the Reichstag. Hirschbiegel decided to limit the amount of CGI and sets, so as not to make the set design look like that of a theatre production. He explained:
The only CGI shot that's been used in the film was the one with the Reichstag because of course we could not reconstruct that—that's the only thing. I'm very proud of that, because if you do a war movie, you cannot do that and build sets. You feel the cardboard. You feel that it's all made to entertain, and it takes away from that horror that war basically means.
Downfall's release provoked a debate in German film magazines and newspapers. The tabloid Bild asked, "Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?" On its broadcast in the UK, Channel 4 marketed it with the strapline: "It's a happy ending. He dies".
The film was released on DVD in August 2005, by Columbia-TriStar Home Entertainment. Shout! Factory released a collector's edition Blu-ray in March 2018, with a "making-of" featurette, cast and crew interviews, and audio commentary from director Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Box office and awards
Downfall premiered in Munich on 8 September 2004. The film went into a wide release in Germany and Austria a week later; it was also released at a number of international film festivals. Downfall reached the top of Germany and Austria's box office with nearly half a million tickets sold, making $18,195 in its opening weekend and finishing with $5,509,040. $86,671,870 was made with its foreign gross, and it became the fourth most popular film at the 2005 Norwegian box office. The film made $93.6 million altogether.
In 2005, Downfall was nominated for an Oscar at the 77th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It won the 2005 BBC Four World Cinema competition. The film was also ranked number 48 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
The review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives an approval rating of 91% based on 138 published reviews (a weighted average of 8 out of 10) and the consensus, "Downfall is an illuminating, thoughtful and detailed account of Hitler's last days." Metacritic, another review aggregator, offers a score of 82 out of 100 on based on 35 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
— Hirschbiegel in 2015, on the criticism surrounding the portrayal of Hitler as a human being
The film was debated by critics and audiences upon release, although Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler was praised. On the film's depiction of Hitler, David Denby for The New Yorker said that Ganz "made the dictator into a plausible human being". Addressing other critics like Denby, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said the film did not provide an adequate portrayal of Hitler's actions, because he felt no film could, and that no response would be sufficient. Ebert said Hitler was in reality "the focus for a spontaneous uprising by many of the German people, fueled by racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear". Author Giles MacDonogh criticised the film for its sympathetic portrayals of the SS officers Wilhelm Mohnke and Ernst-Günther Schenck. MacDonogh also pointed out that Schenck's medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners using herbs in 1938 allegedly led to deaths among his subjects and among the slaves growing the herbs. In response, Hirschbiegel stated he did his own research and did not find the allegations for Schenck convincing. Mohnke strongly denied the accusations against him, telling historian Thomas Fischer that he never issued any orders to take or execute English prisoners.
Hermann Graml, history professor and former Luftwaffe helper, praised the film and said that he had not seen a film that was "so insistent and tormentingly alive". Graml said that Hitler's portrayal was presented correctly by showing Hitler's will "to destroy, and his way of denying reality." Julia Radke of the German website Future Needs Remembrance praised the film's acting and called it well crafted and a solid Kammerspielfilm, though it could lose viewer interest due to a lack of concentration on the narrative perspective. German author Jens Jessen said that the film "could have been stupider" and called it a "chamber play that could not be staged undramatically". Jessen also said that it was not as spectacular as the pre-media coverage could have led one to believe, and it did not arouse the 'morbid fascination' the magazine Der Spiegel was looking for.
Hitler biographer Sir Ian Kershaw wrote in The Guardian that the film had enormous emotive power, calling it a triumph and "a marvelous historical drama". Kershaw also said that he found it hard to imagine anyone would find Hitler to be a sympathetic figure in his final days. Rochus Misch, who acted as telephonist and bodyguard in the bunker, called Downfall "americanized" in a 2005 interview while comparing what happened in the film to what happened in real life. He stated that although the film portrayed the important facts accurately, it exaggerated other details for dramatic effect, such as the film's characters screaming and shouting when, in his recollection, most people in the bunker spoke quietly.
The film is well known as the inspiration for Downfall parodies, often called "Hitler Rants". One scene in the film, in which Hitler launches into a furious tirade upon finally realizing that the war is lost, has become a staple of internet videos. In these videos, the original German audio is retained, but new subtitles are added so that Hitler and his subordinates seem to be reacting instead to an issue of setback in present-day politics, sports, entertainment, popular culture, or everyday life.
By 2010, there were thousands of such parodies, including many in which Hitler is enraged that people keep making Downfall parodies in a case of metaparody. The parodies, as well as the film itself, have also gained a cult following, spawning a community of YouTube users who call themselves "Untergangers", devoted to the practice of making Downfall-related videos. Some of them have cited their reasons for making the parodies. Stacy Lee Blackmon, a YouTube user known for maintaining the Hitler Rants Parodies channel, has over 1,800 videos to his name as of October 2018, he also has made parodies for 10 years. In an interview with the Swedish magazine show Kobra, Blackmon denied that parody makers are neo-Nazi sympathizers and stated that the Unterganger community disparages Nazism.
The film's director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, spoke positively about these parodies in a 2010 interview with New York magazine, saying that many of them were funny and they were a fitting extension of the film's purpose: "The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality. I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like." Nevertheless, Constantin Film has taken an "ambivalent" view of the parodies and has asked video sites to remove many of them. On 21 April 2010, the producers initiated a removal of parody videos from YouTube. This prompted posting of videos of Hitler complaining about the fact that the parodies were being taken down, and a resurgence of the videos on the site.
In October 2010, YouTube stopped blocking Downfall-derived parodies. Corynne McSherry, an attorney specializing in intellectual property and free speech issues for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: "All the Downfall parody videos that I've seen are very strong fair use cases and so they're not infringing, and they shouldn't be taken down." Constantin Film went on to produce and distribute the Hitler-themed comedy Look Who's Back (2015), which includes an extended spoof of the oft-parodied scene from Downfall.
In July 2013, Jefferies Group, an American investment firm, was ordered by a Hong Kong court to pay $1.86 million to former equity trading head Grant Williams for firing him for sending out a newsletter that linked to a Hitler parody video, mocking JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon.
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In various home-subtitled remakes over the last few years, Hitler explodes when told that the McMansion he was trying to flip is in foreclosure, that the band Oasis has split up, that the Colts lost the Super Bowl or that people keep making more “Downfall” parodies.
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