For years now, YouTube has been flooded with a very specific meme. The cinematic riff has many incarnations, but the basic foundation is a scene from a German drama outfitted with hilarious new subtitles. The scene depicts a distraught Adolf Hitler being given an obvious piece of bad news, dismissing most of the people in the room, and then launching into an epic tirade. The inserted subtitles tend to deal with a changing cavalcade of petty, topical irritations—everything from cancelled XBOX Live accounts to the collapse of HD-DVD. No doubt you have seen this meme, but what about the movie from whence it came?
That film is 2004’s Downfall and we strongly suggest you consider adding this newly streaming Netflix title to your queue.
Who Made It: Given that this is a foreign film, the names of those involved aren’t likely to grab you or present a convincing argument for its viewing. However, director Oliver Hirschbiegel is one of Germany’s most acclaimed filmmakers. He has been nominated for, and won, several awards for his various films. Downfall was actually nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2005. In addition to his numerous German films, Hirschbiegel also directed Invasion, Warner Brothers’ 2007 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Who’s In It: German actor Bruno Ganz plays the role of Adolf Hitler in Downfall. Ganz may not be a household name stateside, but he’s been in plenty of recognizable films both foreign and domestic. He starred in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, the film that would later be remade as City of Angels starring Nicolas Cage. He has also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, the Oscar-winning Kate Winslet film The Reader, and the Liam Neeson actioner Unknown.
What’s It About: Downfall charts the last days of the Third Reich. The film opens in May of 1945 as Russian forces are bombing and invading Berlin. Defeat looming, Adolf Hitler wrestles with the collapse of his empire. A young woman, just hired as Hitler’s secretary, serves as the threadline of the plot and it’s through her eyes that we view the story.
Why You Should Watch It: Downfall is a powerful historical drama filled with passionate performances and stunning cinematography. The film utilizes an interesting mixture of universal sentiments and juxtaposes them against purely humanistic storytelling. Sure, Hitler is a loathsome example of humanity and has earned every one of the bilious connotations his name conjures. But this is a story about the collapse of an empire the scale of which had not been seen since ancient Rome, and Hitler is the malevolent, overly ambitious emperor watching his kingdom crash down around him. It takes historical context and transforms it into Greek tragedy.
And while yes, there is a certain amount of disconnect created in the fact that we are not saddened by the fall of the Nazi party, it in no way deludes the drama. This film is really about a woman who, against her better judgment, took a prestige job working for a man who, to many Germans at the time, was something akin to a demigod. She has no ambition to dominate the world or hatred toward any race of people. We witness these events objectively through her eyes and the film becomes more about the affective response of an entire nation during one of its greatest upheavals. A scene where Mrs. Goebbels is poisoning her children as they sleep because she can’t bear the thought of any of them living with the disgrace of defeat is like something out of Shakespeare. The film doesn’t attempt to absolve anyone, and in fact is bookended with footage of Hitler’s actual secretary who claims her naivety does not excuse her sin of collusion.
Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler is absolutely unbelievable. He occupies so many distinctive personalities within one human being to communicate the madness of the dictator’s final days. He switches between unflappable faith in Germany’s ability to win the war to morose resignation to his ultimate failure so abruptly and frequently, and without any hint of recognition that he has done so, that you get the sense that the man no longer has even a tenuous grasp on reality. That scene, which has now become Internet parody lore, is actually simultaneously horrifying and crushing. We are horrified to contemplate the outcome of this tirade, but as we pan across the reactions of the staff, we see in their eyes the agonizing realization that the war is lost and their country is doomed.
It’s far from lighthearted and, at over two and a half hours, requires no small commitment from the viewer, but Downfall is one of the best WWII films ever crafted. Catch it on Netflix.