Downfall (Der Untergang) 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.