DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Downfall (Der Untergang) (RECOMMENDED)

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Aaron Silverman, Sep 7, 2005.

Tags:
  1. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman
    [​IMG]
    Downfall (Der Untergang)[​IMG]

    US Theatrical Release: February 18, 2005 (Sony Pictures/ Newmarket Films)
    US DVD Release: August 2, 2005
    Running Time: 2:35:24 (28 chapter stops)
    Rating: R (Strong Violence, Disturbing Images, and Some Nudity)
    Video: 1.78:1 Anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.66:1 non-anamorphic and 1.78:1 anamorphic)
    Audio: German DD5.1 (Extra Features: German DD2.0; Commentary is English DD2.0)
    Subtitles: None (English subtitles are burned in) (Extra Features: English)
    TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
    Menus: Not animated
    Packaging: Standard keepcase; insert has cover images of other titles on both sides.
    MSRP: $29.95

    THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 3.5/5

    In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took the impoverished pariah that was post-Versailles Germany and built it into one of the greatest military juggernauts ever to march to war. However, by 1945, all that remained was an enormous smoking ruin, divvied up between the Nazis’ two great enemies: Western Democracy and Soviet Communism. For more than 45 years, Germany was a divided nation whose identity had been subjugated to an external ideological clash. Only in recent times have the German people had the luxury of coming to terms with this horrifying chapter of their past from their own historical perspective.

    While there have been other films on the subject of Hitler’s final days, Downfall (Der Untergang) is the first to be produced by Germans for a German audience. It is mainly based on the book Inside Hitler's Bunker by renowned German historian Joachim Fest and on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary who was the subject of her own documentary (Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary) shortly before her death in 2002. Like many other survivors from Hitler’s inner circle, Junge maintained throughout her life that she was oblivious to much of the evil that was perpetrated by the Nazis. However, unlike many of her contemporaries, she also showed great remorse at her involvement with the Nazis, naïve as she might have been. Because she did not seem to be trying to make excuses for her own actions, her stories are generally considered to be truthful. Other sources, such as Albert Speer, have been known to be rather self-serving and perhaps less than accurate. The makers of Downfall also made use of some of these sources when no others existed (such as in portraying private meetings between Hitler and Speer), but always made an effort to recreate history as it most likely happened.

    In May of 1945, the end is near for the Third Reich. Soviet forces are bearing down on Berlin while Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) and his inner circle huddle in an underground bunker. The city is completely wrecked, with teenaged conscripts and desperate civilians scraping for whatever food and medicine they can find. Beneath them, Hitler issues orders to armies that no longer exist while those around him argue over whether they should try to escape or fight to the bitter end.

    Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) and the other young secretaries in the bunker don’t understand much of the war that rages around them, but they try to be brave and perform what few duties they have left. Some of the remaining generals stay absolutely loyal to the Fuehrer, unwilling to show any sign of disagreement with him regardless of the absurdity of the situation. Others can’t help but speak up as they see their beloved homeland reduced to so much rubble – even though they know it won’t make any difference. Hitler’s closest confidantes head in different directions – Himmler, Goering and Speer (Heino Ferch, in a eerily charming performance) hit the road in attempts to save themselves, while Josef Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) brings his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) and their children into the bunker, much to the horror of those who know what’s coming. Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) continues her partying ways as long as she can, descending into an orgy of revelry resembling that seen in the waning days of the Roman Empire.

    Ganz heads a huge ensemble cast with a fascinating performance, reminding us that the historical caricature of evil that was Hitler was also a human being, showing moments of warmth despite his twisted ideals and genocidal activities. Showing how this was not some mis-programmed automaton or bizarre alien, but a person who ate and joked and loved his dog while perpetrating mass murder and world conquest, is perhaps the most frightening aspect of Ganz’ portrayal. Lara gives Traudl Junge a certain wide-eyed naivete without playing her as childish or stupid as she gradually comes to realize that the end is near for everything she knows. Matthes, as the fanatic propagandist Goebbels, is appropriately creepy, while Köhler’s turn as his wife Magda, who was widely regarded as the First Lady of the Third Reich and who, in the end, shocked even some of the most hardened Nazi leaders, is perhaps the most chilling portrait of all. Professor Dr. Ernst-Günter Schenck, an SS doctor who throughout the war was more concerned with the logistics of food and medicine than with anything else, is the one male character in the film who is truly sympathetic. He is stirringly portrayed by Christian Berkel, whose father was an SS doctor not unlike Schenk, but whose mother, ironically, was Jewish and lost most of her family in the death camps.

    Downfall is focused mainly on Hitler himself and on the observations of Junge, but dozens of characters cross their paths over the film’s 2.5-hour running time. Many of them are never actually identified until the what-became-of-them photo montage that ends the movie. Serious history buffs will be able to figure out who some of them are, but most viewers will simply be confused. Likewise, the strategy meetings between Hitler and his generals will not hold much meaning for the majority of the audience beyond “he’s demanding attacks from units that are no longer capable of them”. Names like Doenitz and Guderian are mentioned in passing with no explanation of who they are or why they’re relevant to the conversation. This is where the film falls down a bit – although 2.5 hours is certainly not short, Downfall might have worked better as a longer miniseries that could have spent more time on some of the characters who come across as random uniforms coming and going. (However, see discussion of the commentary track below. Note also that there exists a 175-minute TV cut that will be released in a 3-disc edition in Germany later this year.) One side effect of this is that certain characters, such as Hermann Fegelein (Thomas Kretschmann), who was a brutal war criminal in reality, and Albert Speer, who knew exactly what was going on in the Reich even if he wasn’t directly involved with many of the worst atrocities, come across out of context as sympathetic (to a degree).

    The other shortcoming of the film is the use of less-than-impressive battle scenes. Sprinkled throughout to remind the viewer that there is a war raging outside the underground bunker wherein nearly all of the action in the movie occurs, they tend to be small, brief, and unexciting. The struggle for Berlin between the desperate remnants of the German war machine and the vengeful Soviet hordes was one of the biggest and bloodiest urban battles in history. The budget precluded big, expensive set pieces, and the filmmakers did a decent job with what resources they had, but it’s too bad that there are no big fighting sequences to better show what was going on. Viewers are left to infer the scale of the violence from the crumbling sets and expository dialogue.

    This first German film on the subject of the Third Reich’s final days mostly succeeds in what it attempts to do, even if it is unable to devote enough time to all of its characters. The filmmakers tried to show this true story as realistically as they possibly could, with only one significant invented personage (Peter Kranz, played by 12-year-old Donevan Gunia, who represents all of the young boys conscripted to defend the city) and a documented historical basis for pretty much every scene. There’s a lot to be learned here for those who are unfamiliar with the details of these events, and those who are familiar with them should find the recreations interesting. By the same token, however, viewers who aren’t interested in the history probably won’t find much to hold their attention here.


    THE WAY I SEE IT: 3.5/5

    As the film takes place almost entirely in a windowless underground bunker, the image tends to be dark and grainy. It’s reproduced well for the most part, although some digital noise is visible in the grain. There is a lot of edge enhancement, although it’s not laid on very thick. It won’t be too noticeable on smaller screens. Colors are basically realistic, if slightly washed-out (which, to be honest, is appropriate for the tone of the story).


    THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4/5

    The vast majority of the film consists of dialogue, which is clear and easy to follow. The surrounds kick in where appropriate, such as during party sequences and the brief battle scenes. The one thing that is AWOL is the LFE – it doesn’t crank nearly as much as it should when artillery shells are exploding on-screen. When a building in the movie is shaken to its foundation, the subwoofer should bring more of that home than it does here. If there were more explosions in the film, then that would have been a bigger issue.


    THE SWAG: 3/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)

    Commentary With Director Oliver Hirschbiegel

    The commentary track, which is in English, focuses more on the historical context of the story and characters than on the actual filmmaking. Some technical details are discussed, such as the fact that the film was shot, ironically, in St. Petersburg, using Russian soldiers as extras. Mostly, though, Hirschbiegel identifies characters, filling in some of their background details, and adds context to the situation on screen. He covers a lot of information that adds greatly to the viewer’s understanding of the action. This is a case where listening to the commentary significantly increases the depth of the film itself. Not to be missed.

    Making of Downfall (58:29)

    Interviews with cast and crew, along with lots of behind-the-scenes production footage. As with the commentary, most of the discussion involves the historical events and characters portrayed in the film. The one knock on this piece is that the speakers are not identified (the director and cast are recognizable from the film and interviews), but it’s still definitely worth checking out. It’s in non-anamorphic widescreen (about 1.66:1), with five chapter stops, in German with player-generated English subtitles.

    Cast And Crew Interviews

    Five interviews are included. Like the other special features, the focus here is on recreating history and what it was like to work with and portray the real people in the story. There is some topic overlap with the interviews in the featurette, but these are still absolutely worth watching. They are in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), in German with player-generated English subtitles.
    • Oliver Hirschbiegel (Director) (4:05)
    • Melissa Müller (Co-Author of Traudl Junge’s memoirs) (8:21)
    • Bruno Ganz (Actor: Adolf Hitler) (6:18)
    • Alexandra Maria Lara (Actress: Traudl Junge) (1:42)
    • Juliane Köhler (Actress: Eva Braun) (2:27)

    SUMMING IT ALL UP

    The Way I Feel About It: 3.5/5
    The Way I See It: 3.5/5
    The Way I Hear It: 4/5
    The Swag: 3/5


    Downfall is a fascinating ensemble bio-pic that provides the first opportunity for audiences to see these important historical events played out in their original language. The A/V quality of the disc is good, if not spectacular. The performances are uniformly excellent, showing a variety of reactions of real people to a truly horrifying experience. Unfortunately, the film gives some (perhaps many) of its characters short shrift, at times confusing viewers without a strong knowledge of the history. While it does suffer somewhat (as reflected in its star rating) from this and from the lack of battle sequences of the quality to which today’s audiences have become accustomed, the top-notch special features fill in most of the blanks and add a lot of depth to the presentation, making this disc worth RECOMMENDING.
     
  2. Steve Tannehill

    Steve Tannehill Ambassador

    Joined:
    Jul 6, 1997
    Messages:
    5,547
    Likes Received:
    215
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Location:
    DFW
    Real Name:
    Steve Tannehill
    I watched this with a friend over Labor Day and found it to be fascinating. But it was also such a downer that we did some Skeet Surfing next and watched Top Secret. Talk about a double feature!

    - Steve
     
  3. Andy Sheets

    Andy Sheets Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Aug 6, 2000
    Messages:
    2,376
    Likes Received:
    3
    Trophy Points:
    110
    Even if the budget was large enough, I'm not sure that large, exciting battle scenes would have been appropriate for the film. I think the film's handling of the warfare was just right as it is.

    Interesting news about the tv miniseries. I hope they release that over here [​IMG]
     
  4. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman

    Me too! It's a 3-disc set with a ton of extra features. (Speaking of Blackhawk Down. . .)
     
  5. Kain_C

    Kain_C Screenwriter

    Joined:
    Nov 17, 2002
    Messages:
    1,036
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Yeah, I disagree with the notion of the 'less-than-impressive battle scenes'. The focus was really on Hitler and the immediate people that surrounded him, not Berlin. However, the battle scenes that were in the film were more than adequate for their small screen time and I thought they were well done. And this is coming from someone who loved BHD.
     
  6. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman


    Whenever it made me feel down, I just reminded myself of exactly whom it was that I was watching be miserable! [​IMG]

    Of course, it's always a good time to watch Top Secret.
     
  7. Cory H.

    Cory H. Stunt Coordinator

    Joined:
    Aug 22, 2005
    Messages:
    191
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    The whole Hitler focus was dropped about 105 minutes into the movie, IIRC. After that, my interest began to waiver. Pretty solid bio-pic, overall.
     
  8. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman


    Within the context of the film, they were OK, but they do not in any way convey the scale of the actual battle that was raging in the city. Over 2 million soldiers and thousands of tanks were involved in the street fighting, with over 500,000 casualties. From watching the scenes in Downfall, one might have the impression that only small pockets of troops were sporadically engaged. This was an enormous and bloody struggle.

    It was like one of those History Channel specials where they hire 8 re-enactors and show close-ups of them from a bunch of different angles to represent some huge battle. [​IMG]
     
  9. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

    Joined:
    Nov 3, 2003
    Messages:
    3,883
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0


    The whole resolution of how Goebbels and his wife dealt with their children, which is some of the most powerful stuff in the movie, happens after Hitler exits the scene.
     
  10. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman
    Quick note: I updated the review to mention the book Inside Hitler's Bunker by Joachim Fest, which was also a major source used by the filmmakers.
     
  11. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

    Joined:
    May 7, 2001
    Messages:
    1,342
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Nice job Aaron... I have not yet seen this, but I look forward to it.
     
  12. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman
    Thanks, Herb!
     
  13. Michael Osadciw

    Michael Osadciw Screenwriter

    Joined:
    Jun 24, 2003
    Messages:
    1,339
    Likes Received:
    5
    Trophy Points:
    110
    Real Name:
    Michael Osadciw
    I saw ads for this title months back and it seemed interesting. I'll have to get my hands on this title too!

    Thanks for the review, Aaron!

    Mike
     
  14. Paul McElligott

    Paul McElligott Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Jul 2, 2002
    Messages:
    2,598
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Real Name:
    Paul McElligott
    It wasn't a "bio-pic" but the story of the last 12 days of the Nazi regime from inside the bunker. Naturally, the early focus was on Hitler but the story continued well after he blew his own brains out. Like Haggai said, Mrs. Goebbels' "solution" to her problem is one of the most powerful scenes in the film.
     
  15. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Founder
    Owner

    Joined:
    Jul 3, 1997
    Messages:
    48,304
    Likes Received:
    5,481
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Real Name:
    Ronald Epstein
    There's another Downfall thread
    in this forum area where a member reccomended
    some additional titles I might be interested
    in viewing.

    I recently picked up two BBC documentaries,
    Nazis: A Warning From History and
    Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. Both
    are released thru Warner Home Video and a
    little bit on the pricey side due to the fact
    that they contain 2 discs (each documentary is
    about 4 hours in length).

    I spent last week watching both, and I was
    really impressed with how well both these docs
    present their material. Anyone who has any
    fascination with learning about the history and
    horrors of the Nazi regime would do quite well
    with both these documentaries. It's sort of
    surprising and rather sad to see interviews with
    some of the surviving German SS members and
    soldiers who still feel that their actions were
    justified.

    In any event, I think the documentaries mentioned
    above are well worth the disc price.
     
  16. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman
    Mike, you're welcome!

    Ron, thanks for the recommendations -- I'll have to check those out.


    In the Downfall commentary, the director mentions a few surviving bunkerites that he contacted who are still True Believers to this day. [​IMG]
     
  17. Aaron Silverman

    Aaron Silverman Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 22, 1999
    Messages:
    11,195
    Likes Received:
    765
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Florida
    Real Name:
    Aaron Silverman


    It wasn't a bio-pic per se, but it played like one -- the focus was mainly on the reactions of the different characters than on the events themselves.
     
  18. Gordon McMurphy

    Gordon McMurphy Producer

    Joined:
    Aug 3, 2002
    Messages:
    3,530
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Frankly, I have seen enough WWII films with extended (and, it has to be said, often very impressive) battle scenes. I am fully aware of the death and destruction that this war brought to mankind. Those images are now cinematically redundant, I feel. There is far more to WWII than guns, tanks and bombs. What interests me, is how those people felt at the time and what their direct experiences were. I find American films about WWII very predictable. Over the last two years, I have tracked down many WWII films from European countries and there is a world of difference in style, substance and message. The Czech films, Diamonds in the Night (1964, Jan Nemec) about two Jewish boys who escape from a train headed to a deathcamp, shot in an austere manner and features very little dialogue is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. Zbynek Brynych's 1962 film, Transport From Paradise about life in a camp is also well worth tracking down. Possibly the greatest Finnish film ever made, The Unknown Soldier (1955, Edvin Laine) a three-hour epic, focusing on a Finnish machinegun squad who are ordered to turn in their 'surplass' guns. This proves to be a tragic mistake and the young soldiers must fight a brave war of attrition.

    German WWII films have been neglected for decades. In the Fifties and Sixties, the country who started the war, made the finest anti-war films, I feel: Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (Nights When the Devil Came) (1957, Robert Siodmak), Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben (Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?) (1958, Frank Wisbar), Sterne (Stars) (1959, Konrad Wolf), Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt (The Adventures of Werner Holt) (1965, Joachim Kunert), Ich war 19 (I Was Nineteen) (1968, Konrad Wolf). The Konrad Wolf films in particular are quite unique, very powerful, very moving. None of them are on DVD, which is staggering.

    Der Untergang is a unique achievement in modern German Cinema. One must bear in mind that the film is based on Joachim Fest's book, Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich and Traudl Junge's Until the Final Hour, neither focus on combat and are all the better for it. As is mentioned above the scene in which Magda Goebbels calmly, remorsefully, terminates her children was the most numbing moments I have ever experienced in a cinema. The whole film has an apocalyptic air to it that alters between hysteria and calm surrender. But it, and this has not been noted by any critic, as far as I can tell, not without humour, albeit dark (or absurd, depending on your own sesibilities) and hard to laugh at out loud in a cinema; for example, there is the scene where the Field Marshall (?) recieves order that he is to be executed, so he journeys to the bunker! I found that hilarious, absurd.

    Films should show all aspects of war, not just the battles and the planning, the strategy. Films like A Bridge Too Far once amazed me, nowadays, that film bores me to death, with many characters grossly miscast, most notably, Gene Hackman. This is a common error made by British and American war films: using Big Movie Stars and giving them macho dialogue. You don't find this in German, French and Czech war films. They are sober, austere, direct and have a great impact on me. That's not to say that all Anglo-American war films are hogwash and that all European war films are grade-A masterpieces, but there tends to be a marked differnce in style and attitude towards the subject of WWII.

    A bit long-winded, but I had to get this off my chest!
     
  19. Paul McElligott

    Paul McElligott Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Jul 2, 2002
    Messages:
    2,598
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Real Name:
    Paul McElligott
    An urban battle like Berlin is totally different than a huge setpiece battle like Kursk. Urban combat is more like a thousand little battles that add up to one big battle. A single soldier has no perception about the scale of the situation, at least until it's over. To him, is all about him and his guys on one end of the street and the other guys at the other end of the street.

    The battle scenes in Downfall are from the perspective of a few people at a time and therefore the scale seems just about right.
     
  20. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

    Joined:
    Nov 3, 2003
    Messages:
    3,883
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Another point regarding the fate of the Goebbels children: in the commentary, Hirschbiegel says that when their bodies were found, the youngest daughter's body was covered with bruises. So as chilling as the scene in the film is, they apparently (and quite justifiably, I think, from a cinematic storytelling perspective) toned it down pretty significantly from how it actually happened!
     

Share This Page