History Nerd's Review: Der Untergang (2004)

"Life never forgives weakness. This so called humanity... is just priests' drivel. Compassion is a primal sin. Compassion for the weak is a betrayal of nature."

Der Untergang (Downfall) chronicles the last days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) and the Battle of Berlin, mainly as seen through the eyes of his personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). It's an intense and disturbing look at one of the most evil people who ever walked the Earth. It's also the source material for all those "Hitler rant" parody videos you've seen.

Success in the world of memes and viral videos is all well and good, but how did Der Untergang do on the history exam? Let's get out the red pen and start grading.

Yes, that really happened: The last eight months of World War II in Europe were a period of concentrated, uninterrupted awfulness summed up in the title of historian Max Hastings' excellent book on the subject: Armageddon. Der Untergang portrays one of the worst chapters of that horrible time, the final battle for Berlin. The troop movements, the deployment of naïve child soldiers and underequipped old men to fight the Russians, the roving execution squads--all of that happened pretty much as shown on the screen, and many conversations are taken word-for-word from the recollections of people who were there at the time.

One particular incident that is re-created exactly as it happened is Hitler awarding medals to child soldiers in the Reich Chancellery garden. The filmmakers staged the scene based on archival footage--the last film taken of Hitler before his death--and even made sure to include the newsreel cameraman.

Inside the Führerbunker, among Hitler's inner circle, the atmosphere was as surreal as a Franz Kafka graphic novel illustrated by Salvador Dali.  Many were convinced, right to the end, that there would be some miraculous event--der Führer's cunning strategy coming to fruition, the unveiling of some secret weapon, divine intervention by the Norse gods, take your pick--that would reverse the course of the war. As shown on the screen, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) really did believe that he could convince Dwight D. Eisenhower and the western Allies to change sides and fight the Russians just by talking to Ike for an hour--and he was actually one of the saner ones!

Others, complicit in the regime's atrocities and realizing that the Allies (and the Russians in particular) were unlikely to be in a forgiving mood, made a dash for the exits or took their own lives. Many more, including Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), just mentally checked out and spent the rest of the war binge drinking and ignoring the herd of elephants in the room.

Even in this cauldron of irrationality, der Führer was the grand champion of surreal. He could be charming and almost likeable one moment, then launch into a screaming tirade the next, and then go back to calm and charming again so fast that it induced whiplash. His outlook varied almost at random between irrational optimism and fatalistic pessimism. Bruno Ganz watched all the late-war newsreel footage he could get his hands on, and accurately copied Hitler's stooped posture, shuffling gait, and hand tremors. At the time the film was made, the consensus was that the physical symptoms were manifestations of Parkinson's disease. It has since come to light that Hitler was addicted to methamphetamine and other substances thanks to the oodles of drugs (click here for a reasonably complete list) foisted on him by his quack personal physician, Theodor Morell. (The scene where Hitler trash-talks Hermann Göring for being an addict could be awarded the Iron Cross for irony!) Morell bugged out of Berlin before the period depicted in the film, so it is probable that Hitler was also going through withdrawal at this time--which is not to say that he might not have also had Parkinson's on top of his addictions. While Herr Ganz did not have the benefit of this later scholarship when preparing for the role, those who had been in the bunker in 1945 and were still living when the film came out agreed that he got the physical movements and unstable personality exactly right.

Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) really did poison their six children before killing themselves, convinced that a world without National Socialism was not worth living in. It's the most disturbing scene in a film filled with disturbing scenes, and if anything, it's actually toned down from real life--the children would have gone into violent convulsions for several seconds as the poison took effect.

Points off for: Child soldier Peter Kranz, his parents, and the other child soldiers and civilians, are fictional characters, though their experiences are typical of what those caught up in the Battle of Berlin saw and went through.

In what is otherwise a museum-grade visual recreation of Berlin in April of 1945, there is a brief appearance of one of the most unconvincing fake Tiger tanks in the history of film.

Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), Himmler's liaison officer in the Führerbunker, comes off as one of the less-repulsive people on the screen. Though he deserts his post to indulge himself with hookers and cocaine (as he did in real life), he also tries his level best to save the life of his sister-in-law Eva Braun, and defiantly faces his executioners with a Hitler salute when they shoot him. In reality, he was a greedy, cowardly, groveling weasel, so much so that even Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler's #1 groveling yes-man in the Wehrmacht high command, considered him beneath contempt.

Extra credit for: Hitler had a distinctively Austrian accent that is hard for non-Austrians to imitate, a subtlety that few people whose first language is not German would pick up on. There are only three known recordings in existence of Adolf Hitler using his indoor voice. Only one of these is a recording of Hitler in a normal, unscripted, private conversation. Bruno Ganz listened to that recording over... and over... and over again so he could get that accent absolutely correct.

After Hitler's suicide, there are two pistols on the coffee table: the Walther PP he used on himself, and a Walther Model 8. This detail is correct, based on the testimony of Hitler's adjutant and valet, who were the first people to enter the room.

The film begins and ends with excerpts from the Austrian documentary Im toten Winkel - Hitlers Sekretärin (Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary), a 2002 interview with Traudl Junge, filmed shortly before her death.

In the opening sequence where Traudl Junge interviews for a job with der Führer, it is 1942, before she got married, and she is correctly addressed by her maiden name, Fraulein Humps. In the rest of the film, she is addressed as Frau Junge.

Additional comments: Der Untergang has been criticized for "humanizing" Adolf Hitler. I don't think this is a fair criticism. The film does go to great lengths to portray him as the complex person he was, but in no way can it be considered sympathetic. He was a sociopath, true--as evidenced by statements like the quote at the top of this review--but he was more than a one-dimensional cartoon character ranting in front of a microphone. A one-dimensional cartoon character could not have persuaded so many people to become so fanatically devoted to his bat-looney ideology that they were willing to burn down Western civilization and kill people by the millions. As director Oliver Hirschbiegel put it:
Bad people do not walk around with claws like vicious monsters, even though it might be comforting to think so. Everyone intelligent knows that evil comes along with a smiling face.
Der Untergang does not portray, or even mention, the atrocities committed by the Soviet Red Army in the final months of the war. Having seen what the Germans did to their country, it was easy enough for the average Russian to be predisposed toward vengeance, and the Soviet high command did nothing to restrain, and quite a lot to encourage, this predisposition. Given the film's focus on the Führerbunker and the people in it, this was a reasonable judgment call on the part of the filmmakers.

When I was watching the film, I thought the cannon manned by the child soldiers was a German 8.8cm "FLAK 41." It's actually a Russian 85mm M1939 cannon. This isn't necessarily an error; the Germans captured great quantities of Russian weapons when they invaded in 1941, and used them throughout the war.

Julia Jentsch, who played the title role in Sophie Scholl: die letzen Tage, has a brief part in Der Untergang as one of the applicants for the job of Hitler's secretary.

In a 2010 interview published on New York Magazine's "Vulture" blog, Oliver Hirschbiegel declared himself a fan of the Hitler rant parody video genre:
I think I've seen about 145 of them! Of course, I have to put the sound down when I watch. Many times the lines are so funny, I laugh out loud, and I’m laughing about the scene that I staged myself! You couldn't get a better compliment as a director.

Final grade: 98%

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