In November of 1942, a small group of women waits anxiously at a job interview. Before long, one of them is selected. Traudl Humps (soon to become Traudl Junge through marriage) is attractive, but only 22 years old and not a very skilled typist. Nevertheless, she is chosen by Adolf Hitler to be his personal secretary. It’s a position she will keep through Hitler’s death.

Three years later, Hitler is celebrating his 65th birthday in his underground bunker in Berlin as the Soviets close in on the city’s center. Even as artillery shells thunder ever nearer and louder, Hitler refuses to flee. He will stay put and await either a miracle or the bitter end where he is — surrounded by his most loyal inner circle, including girlfriend Eva Braun, his dog Blondi, Joseph Goebbels and wife Magda, and their six children.

Downfall (Der Untergang in German) is Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s 2004 drama of Adolf Hitler’s last ten days, based on several books, including Traudl Junge’s own memoir, Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Last Secretary, and Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich, by Joachim Fest.

Probably best known to Internet users through its use in thousands of parody clips like the one above, in which substitute subtitles are inserted, Downfall stars Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler. It’s an outstanding performance. While appearing slightly older and perhaps less charismatic than the real warlord, Ganz projects Hitler’s tyrannical wrath, delusional optimism, and bleak despair masterfully. Behind his back, he conceals the twitching hand which betrays his festering madness. Ganz spent four months studying Hitler’s voice, recorded in private conversation, in order to nail his tone and Austrian dialect.

The supporting cast is quite good as well. Juliane Köhler plays the neglected and trivial Eva Braun with subtle sensitivity. Corinna Harfouch is blood-curdling as Magda, wife of the passive and creepy Joseph Goebbels, portrayed by lrich Matthes.

Also remarkable is Downfall‘s look and feel. Convincing shells destroy wartime Berlin one blast at a time. Buildings burn, corpses and body parts are scattered with rubble and debris.The atmosphere of the Führerbunker grows ever more claustrophobic and diseased, and its concrete, industrial lighting, and bloody sofa all look exactly as they do in photos from those days. Uniforms, utensils, and furnishings all ring true.

Downfall has been criticized for depicting Adolf Hitler as a not completely unlikable human being in his private moments with staff and friends, and for sidestepping his heinous and barbaric crimes across a continent. This film does not really address the Holocaust at all, and even though its scope is limited to ten days in cramped quarters, that is nevertheless a huge and disturbing omission.

What Downfall does exceptionally well is to convey the crushing defeat that finally penetrated into Hitler’s very hiding place and snuffed out his savage reign. That this ugly scar in human history was inflicted by an ordinary mortal only makes the lesson more immediate.

Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of the most infamous human in history is brilliant, and Downfall is a powerful glimpse inside the grim basement where that story ended. I rate it three and a half out of four stars.

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