Downfall: Hitler’s last days | Sunday Observer

Downfall: Hitler’s last days

12 September, 2021

Downfall is a 2004 German-language historical war film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by its producer, Bernd Eichinger. It is set during the Battle of Berlin in World War II, when Nazi Germany is on the verge of defeat, and depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler (portrayed by Bruno Ganz).

The cast includes Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes, Juliane Köhler, Heino Ferch, Christian Berkel, Alexander Held, Matthias Habich, and Thomas Kretschmann. The film is a German-Austrian-Italian co-production.

Principal photography took place from September to November 2003, on location in Berlin, Munich, and in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 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 screenplay was based on the books ’Inside Hitler’s Bunker’ by historian Joachim Fest and ’Until the Final Hour’ by Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries, among other accounts of the period.

The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on 14 September 2004. It was controversial with audiences for showing the human side of Hitler and its portrayal of members of the Third Reich. It later received a wide theatrical release in Germany under its production company Constantin Film. The film grossed over $92 million and received favourable reviews from critics, particularly for Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler and Eichinger’s screenplay. ’Downfall’ was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Academy Awards.

Scenes from the film, such as the one where a furious Hitler learns that the generals failed to obey his orders, spawned a series of Internet meme parodies. These memes spread on the internet, especially on YouTube.


When Bruno Ganz was offered the role of Hitler, he was reluctant to accept the part, and many of his friends advised against accepting it, but he believed that the subject had “a fascinating side”, and ultimately agreed to take the role. Ganz conducted four months of research and studied a 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 came to the conclusion that Hitler had Parkinson’s disease, noting his observation of Hitler’s shaky body movements in the newsreel ’Die Deutsche Wochenschau’, and decided to visit a hospital to study patients with the disease.

Ganz auditioned in the casting studio with makeup for half an hour and tested his voice for Hirschbiegel who was convinced by his performance.

Alexandra Maria Lara was cast as Traudl Junge; she was given Junge’s book ’Until the Final Hour’ (2002), which she called her “personal treasure”, to read during filming.

Before she was cast, she had seen André Heller’s documentary film Im toten Winkel which impressed her and influenced her perspective on Junge.


During production, Hirschbiegel believed that Hitler would often charm people using his personality, only to manipulate and betray them. Many of the people in the film, including Traudl Junge, are shown to be enthusiastic in interacting with Hitler instead of feeling threatened or anxious by his presence and authority.

The production team sought to give Hitler a three-dimensional personality, with Hirschbiegel 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.” He said Hitler was “like a shell”, attracting people with self-pity, but inside the shell was only “an enormous will for destruction”.

The film explores the suicides and deaths of the Nazi Party people as opposed to the people who chose life. Hitler’s provision of cyanide pills to those in the bunker and the Goebbels’ murder of their children are shown as selfish deeds while people such as Schenck, who choose to help the injured and escape death, are shown as rational and generous.

In the DVD commentary, Hirschbiegel said that the events in the film were “derived from the accounts, from descriptions of people” in the bunker. The film also includes an introduction and closing with the real Junge in an interview from ’Im toten Winkel’, where she admits feeling guilt for “not recognizing this monster in time”.

Critical response

The review-aggregator website ’Rotten Tomatoes’ gives the film a score of 90% based on 140 reviews from critics, with a weighted average of 8.01/10. The website’s consensus reads, “Downfall is an illuminating, thoughtful and detailed account of Hitler’s last days.” On Metacritic, the film was awarded the ‘must-see’ badge, holding a weighted average of 82 out of 100 based on 35 reviews, indicating “universal acclaim”.

Reviews for the film were often very positive, despite debate surrounding the film from critics and audiences upon its release. Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler was singled out for praise; 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”.

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 marvellous 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. Wim Wenders, in a review for the German newspaper ’Die Zeit’, said the film was absent of a strong point of view for Hitler which made him harmless, and compared ’Downfall’ to ’Resident Evil: Apocalypse’, stating that in ’Resident Evil’ the viewer would know which character was evil.