Since Putin’s wicked assault on Ukraine, I can’t get this chilling film out of my head

 Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer left The Telegraph in May 2011 but returned in 2015 to write a weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph.

May 14, 2022

Comparing anyone with Hitler is foolish – but Downfall, a stunnning 2004 account of the tyrant’s final hours, reminded me of someone…

A tyrant, deranged by failure and unable to glimpse reality until it is too late, is holed up in a secret bunker in the capital as his enemies slowly destroy his armies, his credibility and, before long, his very existence. He retains huge authority despite his obvious failures, not least because he exercises the power of life and death over his citizens through a fanatical band of supporters who, however futile the process, will fight to the death for him.

Putin? Almost: but these are the scenes depicted in Downfall (Der Untergang), the stunning 2004 film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and written by Bernd Eichinger about the last 10 days of the Third Reich. Since Putin’s wicked assault on Ukraine the film has been much in my thoughts; and watching it again I was struck by just how many parallels there are between today’s narcissistic, self-obsessed, psychopathic monster, and yesterday’s.

As a historian I know well that comparing anyone, except Stalin and Mao, with Hitler is a foolish business: and even Putin (so far) has not committed crimes on the scale that the Nazis did. But the mindset, as revealed in this film, looks remarkably similar. Eichinger based his screenplay on two highly authoritative accounts of the Reich’s and Hitler’s denouements: Joachim Fest’s Inside Hitler’s Bunker and Until The Final Hour, by Traudl Junge, who at 22 became Hitler’s confidential secretary.

In an interview included on the DVD of Downfall Eichinger says that he aimed for complete historical accuracy. He certainly succeeded: and his methods are to be commended to many other writers and directors, for whom history has become something upon which to base their exercises in fiction, and who leave viewers believing that what they see really happened rather than being a re-writing of the facts.

The intense credibility of Downfall is sealed by its superb location shooting (with some computer generated effects sparingly thrown in) and brilliant – in one case, near miraculous – performances by the cast. Some of the filming of those rare parts of Berlin that had not been levelled by the Russian artillery in April 1945 was carried out in St Petersburg. This, too, is highly credible, since the same architects who built imperial Berlin after German unification in 1871 also constructed parts of St Petersburg. The Führerbunker was reconstructed in the studio exactly according to the plans of the original; the special effects of the assault on Berlin are so graphic that you should keep your pets at the other end of the house when they are raging.

The actors, though, make the film. Christian Berkel, as a doctor in the SS, displays perfectly the disbelief at the continuing fanaticism of the men (and some women) around him when it is entirely clear that Götterdämmerung has arrived. Alexandra Maria Lara is a perfectly bewildered and distressed Traudl Junge, whose courageous feat in simply walking through the Russian lines and escaping to surrender to the Americans saved her. Rolf Kanies as Krebs and Christian Redl as Jodl play two senior generals who are driven to the point of madness by Hitler’s increasing irrational sense of how bad the situation is, and they are greatly abetted by Michael Mendl as General Weidling, whom Hitler ordered to be shot because he was wrongly informed he had left his command post: he was so angry he went to see him, faced him down and was promoted (only to die in Soviet captivity). Corinna Harfouch is chilling and almost steals the show as an icy, fanatical Magda Goebbels: but the star, inevitably, is Bruno Ganz as Hitler himself. His is one of the most astonishingly brilliant performances I have ever seen in any film.

To prepare for the role, Ganz, a Swiss-German, studied the dialect of the Linz area in Austria, where Hitler was born; and listened in depth to a rare tape of him in a private conversation – that is, not ranting dementedly on a public platform – to try to mimic his voice exactly.

Aided by exceptional make-up, Ganz looks and sounds so convincing that one quickly feels one is in the presence of Hitler; it is a far from pleasant sensation, especially when the deranged Führer launches into one of his spectacular outbursts, and a tribute to the genius of the actor, who died in 2019.

When Downfall was first shown in Britain it had the advertising slogan: “It’s a happy ending. He dies.” Eventually that is true of all tyrants.

3 comments

  1. “When Downfall was first shown in Britain it had the advertising slogan: “It’s a happy ending. He dies.” Eventually that is true of all tyrants.”

    God bless Ukraine and protect her from savages.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’m no longer fluent in German, so I can only make out pieces of the conversation. Ganz, however, was, indeed, brilliant as Hitler.

    I like most of the parodies, especially the one where Chuck Norris is deployed by the allies. He is swimming the Atlantic even as they speak.

    Krebs: We must release the Kraken!

    Hitler: We stole it from his aquarium, you imbicile!

    Like

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