Downfall (Der Untergang)

4 April 2005

I went into Downfall with a certain reluctance; I came out with a new understanding of the history of the 20th Century. That's no small thing, and is one of the reasons that I agree with all the good press this movie has been getting. It was not only the best World War II movie I'd ever seen, but one of the best films in general.

I wanted to see it because I'm a student of history, and I'd heard that this was based on interviews conducted with Hitler's secretary, who was in her 20s during the last two years of the war when she worked for him. Because of this, the story is centered around her character more so than the others; but the nature of the story means we get insight into the swirl of events and the poisonous personalities involved, huddled in the underground Bunker, listening to the thunderous rumbles as the approaching Russian army shells the city.

A few years ago I was at a great talk by the painter Tony Scherman, and in his presentation he brought up the fact that in our world, with TV all over the planet, chances are there is something on the Nazis playing 24 hours a day - that at this minute, somewhere, there's a Nazi show on. He brought it up to point out the project of 'never forgetting' that seems to be behind it.

At the time I was struck by the fact that, you know, history is full of atrocity, and we tend to forget them. It also seems unfair that we privilege certain stories of atrocity while ignoring others. In addition, I've felt that we're living in a totally different world, so why should we keep obsessing over this stuff?

Seeing Downfall helped me understand how traumatic the war was. It's a cliché of criticism to say that we keep getting a sanitized version of war, even now when Speilberg made Saving Private Ryan and how he made sure to have that scene of a guy looking for his arm; but that film failed in the end to make me realize the trauma because it was such a sentimental story that fundamentally seemed to insult intelligence; but similar scenes involving amputation in Downfall may have made me flinch, but this was something they experienced and took for granted, so why should I feel put upon watching it, knowing in the end it's makeup? But the difference here, is that Downfall is a true story, an accurate recreation, filmed in a way so that by the end, I was creeped out. As I should have been. The Nazis were seriously creepy folk, which is something that isn't usually conveyed by documentaries or by cartoon villainy.

It helped me understand that the war was such a disruptive and psychologically unsettling event, something that was the result of centuries of events, all tumbled together and out of control, that movies like this are made (that the Nazi Entertainment Industry is founded on) simply trying to understand it. The sixty years which have past seems perhaps too short a time to fully grasp what happened.

At the same time, as the recent death of the Pope reminds me, we are entering a new understanding. Because John Paul II became a priest during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and that the Cold War which he is credited with doing much to end, was a result of the epilogue of the fall of Berlin to the Red Army.

I grew up going to gun shows with my father throughout the Maritimes and saw so many Nazi artifacts that I took them for granted, artifacts being sold to collectors who wanted a piece of history more than being of the neo-variety. Such a thing to this day cannot happen in Germany - you can't publicly display anything from that era. So, there was some controversy when this movie came out last year in Germany, because this is a German film with big-name German actors. And that was one of the things that made this so compelling - to see a film in the language in which the events actually took place, and with the historical accuracy that memory of survivors would demand. This new period of World War II studies includes films such as this, made not so much to entertain, but to document and to understand.

I'm not going to say you should go see this movie - there are lots of understandable reasons why anyone would chose not to. All I'm going to say is that I doubt you'd regret it, and thus it is highly recommended.

Downfall (Der Untergang), 2004, 148 min
Film synopsis at
Film website (im Deutsch)


  1. April 2005: Published on
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