Der Untergang or Downfall tells the story of the final days of the Third Reich, as Hitler and his generals await their fate in a bunker in central Berlin. Its an extraordinary and important historical film, depicting events I’d never seen before.

Adolf Hitler is played by Bruno Ganz, who utterly immerses himself in the Nazi leader. His portrayal is quite astonishing, both for its detail and its objectivity. Ganz, along with director Oliver Hirschbiegel, render the Fuhrer with neither sympathy nor damnation. He’s as you’d expect–a megalomaniac locked in the bunker’s microworld. He’s delusional, chanting the names of defeated generals and phantom armies like a familiar prayer. [more]

Downfall isn’t only about Hitler, though. It surrounds Hitler’s story with a dozen others, most notably his secretary Traudl Junge, played very convincingly by Alexandra Maria Lara. We watch the suffering that Hitler’s madness has afflicted on average Germans, soldiers and civilians alike. There are some profoundly ghoulish scenes involving the Goebbels children which are frightenly reminiscent of the Von Trapp children.

The film is based on two books–Inside Hitler’s Bunker and Until the Final Hour. I’m no historian, but I’ve read that the film’s historical accuracy is unimpeachable. A movie’s greatest is as much in how it handles the details as the broad strokes. Downfall gets every detail right. There’s a wonderful visual theme in the maps that Hitler broods and fumes over in the briefing room. As his own world collapses, the maps’ scale decreases. In the end, he frowns down on the inch of Berlin that remains the Third Reich. It’s surrounded on all sides by red arrows representing the oncoming Russian army.

If I wanted to teach young people about this period, I’’d sit them down and show them this film and Schindler’s List. They’re in the same league, though Downfall is far less sentimental and Spielberg is a technically-stronger director.


  1. Awareness of WWII is fading. This is natural, as it will be largely gone from living memory within the next twenty years.

    It is also unfortunate. The war was staggering in human cost, and we live with the fallout to this day. The maps of the Europe, Asia, and the Middle East were substantially redrawn, and the tremors from that are still echoing back and forth across those places. We will continue to feel them for another fifty years at least.

    Also unfortunately, the war has been reduced to a few pop-culture
    references: goose-stepping Nazis with jackboots and riding crops, a madman with a little moustache, Jews in concentration camps, and the Americans saving the world for democracy. The reality of the war was far, far more complex than that: Jews were but one of the group of ‘undesirables’, for example, and Hitler had a lot of help.

    I’m always looking for films that offer a greater understanding of this important period of history. I’ll look for Der Untergang

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