Interviews: Downfall

by Carlo Cavagna



LEFT: The Academy Award™-nominated German film Downfall.

Why did so many Germans continue to follow Hitler even as the tide of war turned against them? How does a man who didn't tolerate failure in others confront his own? How did one of the greatest evils the world has ever known experience its downfall?

These are just a few of the questions posed by director Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, a movie that narrows its focus to just two weeks of history—the last desperate days in Hitler's underground Berlin bunker in 1945 as the Red Army tightens its noose—and in the process arguably sheds more light on the broader phenomenon of Nazism than any other film made.

Downfall doesn't accomplish this through elaborate psychological explorations. It doesn't appear to have any overt message. Rather, Hirschbiegel puts you inside Hitler's legendary bunker, rebuilt in Munich as a claustrophobic set with no removable walls or ceilings. (Exteriors were shot, ironically, in St. Petersburg, with Russian extras playing Germans.) There he recreates characters and events as faithfully and realistically as possible, giving you a fly-on-the-wall perspective and limiting analysis to only a few observations from Traudl Jung, Hitler's secretary, who wrote an account of events in the bunker and was the subject of the recent documentary by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, Blind Spot (2003). The rest is up to the audience.

Hirschbiegel's efforts are supported by an all-star German cast, headed by the astonishing Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. He doesn't look much like Hitler, but thanks to a perfect wig and a searing, chilling performance, the differences melt away. Much like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, Ganz finds the human being within the monster—a man who reportedly could appear as kind and charming, particularly toward women and children—and in the process succeeds in making him seem all the more monstrous. This is not Bond-villain madness but true madness, one rooted in irreconcilable contradictions and deep-seated dysfunctions that hint at an unimaginable personal history. By 1945, Hitler was an extremely deteriorated man, exhibiting the aftereffects of an unsuccessful assassination attempt and early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease (or so it is speculated). It is as if Hitler's body manifests awareness of his colossal failures and impending demise, even as his mind refuses to accept reality.

Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bruno Ganz came to Los Angeles to represent Downfall at the 2005 Oscars™, where Downfall was nominated in the category of Best Foreign Film. A few days before the ceremony, they discussed Downfall with AboutFilm and with IGN FilmForce's Jeff Otto ( Hirschbiegel and Ganz talked about the making of Downfall, argued that Germans have a responsibility to address the subject of Hitler, and vigorously dismissed criticisms that the film “humanizes” the Führer.

IGN: What were the initial obstacles in getting this film made?

Hirschbiegel: Well, the biggest obstacle for me was that I, as a director, couldn't really see how this could work, because I would have to direct Adolf Hitler, which is something you joke about when you are asked about your profession. You have to get inside these characters; you have to get inside the whole tale to make it believable and honest. That's what you have to do. But it's one thing joking about it, and then [another thing] having to do it. Eventually I realized that it could work. It was a very good thing to have Bruno on board after having seen him in his moustache and his haircut, because he had done his homework already. Even he [at first] didn't believe [in] it, [either]. But he came out in the casting studio as Adolf Hitler, and I knew if he gave me a yes, this would work.

The other obstacles were the usual ones. When you do an historic picture, you have to do vicious research, and it's very difficult to recreate a time that is really far away, to recreate the strange manners, the very different way these men carried themselves, a very different language, and all that.

IGN: Some people hold the opinion that Hitler should never be humanized. [Ganz sniggers softly] That's a struggle any film like this faces. What are your thoughts on that?

Hirschbiegel: There is no need to humanize Hitler because we all know that he was a human being. The task was to create a three-dimensional picture of this man. It was to get as close to what this man really was—and had to be—to seduce a whole civilized nation into barbarism. To me it's obvious that a demonic creature would never be able to lure a whole people into something evil like that. Of course he was a politician. Of course he had all the means as a human being to manipulate people. And therefore we depict him in that very way.

AboutFilm: There will always be resistance in some quarters, though, against ever seeing him as a human being.

Hirschbiegel: Yes, of course, that's a very comfortable position, because it states [he] is like a demon—something evil that has come over the German people by witchcraft or something like that. If you create a myth like that, an evil myth—that's something Bruno always says, and I think it's right—you have a clear enemy. You have a very fine position as an anti fascist. But it's not that simple. It's not enough to explain. It's not enough to describe the horror, because in doing so, you diminish the horror. You have to examine the background. You have to find out what the roots of this were, and you have to find out why all this was possible.

Ganz: If you dare to take a closer look at this person—  Maybe ‘that's easier for me because I'm not German. I was born in Switzerland; I have a Swiss passport. My parents and grandparents were not involved in any of this stuff directly, so I could allow myself to take a close look. If you follow the witnesses, they are telling you who this guy was to a certain extent. If you are honest, you have to admit that this person was a composition of several persons. He had features that were very sympathetic. He was nice to women; he loved children; he loved his dog; and so on. He could be very generous. On the other hand he was brutal. He had no heart. He just didn't care how many thousands or ten thousands of German soldiers died on the front. He said, “That's why they are here. That's their reason to be Germans. They have to sacrifice their lives.” That's the scary thing—the dimension of his will to destruct. He did not care; he did not know what a victim is. He just ignored it. He didn't want to know.

So I was looking for the center of this evil, and I didn't find a heart. I found a hole, or [an] emptiness. But, on the other hand he was a human being and not an elephant, and he had features that were very appealing. He had the whole population—he had Germany behind him. They supported him, and I would say a great deal of these persons loved him. Why? Because he considered himself—before ‘33, before he came in power (then he changed slightly)—as the savior of Germany. It was his big, big dream. He would heal them from the wounds of the First World War. And that's what he did. So, this was a rather complex figure.

To me, it's not enough to say he was a monster—he was a monster, of course, and he was the most evil person that maybe ever lived—but behind this there is other stuff. If you dare to discover that, I thought you have to show it. That's what I did. I was not humanizing. We had no master plan that we were going to make a new image of Hitler—nothing. This is what [emerged after] reading, in three or four months, forty volumes from different people about this time in the bunker. There's no evidence in film—you have to read, if you want to know. There were a lot of people surrounding him closely, and [if] you read [their accounts], it tells you part of who he was. And I thought, “I am going to tell this.” This is what people now call “humanizing.” It is not humanizing. I think it's rather responsible. I say, “a closer look.” And maybe this is the thing to do in these days. What Chaplin did many, many years ago [in The Great Dictator] was to make him ridiculous. That was, at that time, the right thing to do. But not now.

Hirschbiegel: It's an obligation, really. I think we as Germans have the obligation to show him as he was. I think we owe this to the millions and millions of victims. They have not been killed by an evil creature. They have been killed, on purpose, with industrialized means, and anything else is to me nonsense.

Ganz: There were ideologies behind this. They say Hitler was a Darwinist. He said, “The strongest survive. And the strongest race in Europe are the Germans, because they are Aryans.” And he said, “We should rule the world.” The theory about getting rid of the Jews, that was all over Europe. It goes back to ten hundred and something, eleven hundred. The ghettos in Venice and in Warsaw—they were built in a very early time. [Europe] was full of these kinds of theories. This was very favorable for Hitler, and he used that.

IGN: What other types of research did you do? I understand that you found an audio tape of Hitler speaking at an official gathering.

Ganz: I felt that I had to care about his way to speak. Usually people remember his speeches as screaming and didactic “da-da-dum!” [waves arms], but [here], in the bunker, I thought he's old, and he's really finished. There are scenes that must be somehow quiet. I can't scream at Eva Braun. So it was very lucky that the producer Bernd [Eichinger] sent me a seven-minute long tape recorded secretly in ‘42, I think. He's talking to a Finnish diplomat. He was very relaxed, because he was not aware that he was [being] recorded. Completely relaxed. It's quite a different side, and that was interesting to me.

IGN: Were you able to talk to anyone else who had stories about the way he was in those situations? That's what's interesting, because we haven't seen that portrayal. All we know is what we've seen in speeches.

Ganz: Well, what I watched carefully is the German film that was shot in ‘56, by an Austrian guy [named] G.W. Pabst, which was called The Last Act. It's about the same period—the last three weeks in the bunker. It's quite different, but there I noticed that it is possible—as an actor—that it's really possible to portray Hitler not in a cartoon way, the way Chaplin did, but like a realistic portrayal. That convinced me a lot, because the actor [Albin Skoda]—after five minutes, I said, “Okay, I accept you as Hitler.” He didn't work on his voice. He went into it emotionally, and I learned it is possible.

And then I avoided seeing [Anthony] Hopkins [in the TV movie The Bunker (1981)], or Alec Guinness [in Hitler: The Last Ten Days]. I didn't want to be influenced. I saw a film of the younger Hitler, and one of his speeches, which was amazing because you never saw the audience. You just saw him, and how he starts very low, saying, “As I was a soldier in the First World War—” and then you hear the first reaction, and he gets louder, and he gets louder, and he gets into it. You feel how what's coming back from the audience lifts him. He gets really [going], and that's amazing. I learned a lot about him, watching.

AboutFilm: So, I get the sense of different approaches to and reasons for making this film, because you're German, and you're Swiss—

Ganz: No, no, being Swiss helped me maybe [in] this kind of approach. I didn't care; I wanted to tell my truth—what I found out about Hitler—because I was the actor who was going to portray him. But that's no different to the position [the Germans who worked on the film] had. I read the script, and I said, “Okay, I feel this is correct, politically.” This is the first German film, I would say, about this very dark part of German history. I don't count the Pabst film, because it was not accepted by the public, because it was too close to the war. And I felt this script was clean. We didn't start doubting who was guilty.

Hirschbiegel: They're all guilty, of course.

Ganz: It's a clear script, concerning that. So I said, “Okay, we go for it.”

AboutFilm: How much money did you have to make this film, approximately?

Ganz: Thirty million euros. That makes it like fourteen or fifteen million dollars.

AboutFilm: How did you recreate the bunker and Berlin on that budget?

Hirschbiegel: What was very important to me [was] not to use any digital effects [or] build sets. So we did careful research and went to a lot of countries looking at possible locations, and ended up in St. Petersburg because we found whole streets and back yards that looked exactly the way Berlin looked then. And we found some factory areas half destroyed that we could use, and refurnish. The only CGI shot that's been used in the film was the one with the Reichstag because of course we could not reconstruct that—that's the only thing. I'm very proud of that, because if you do a war movie, you cannot do that and build sets. You feel the cardboard. You feel that it's all made to entertain, and it takes away from that horror that war basically means.

The bunker was constructed at the Bavaria Studios in Munich , following precisely the floor plan. What you see is really how it looked. There is nothing that I created. I told them I wanted it exactly the way it was, and did thorough research about even where the table stood, and the position of the chairs, and things like that. And, furthermore, it was a fixed set. You couldn't take walls out. I couldn't remove anything, really. There was no, “Let's take out that wall and use a long lens.” So it was like we were shooting in the [actual] bunker.

AboutFilm: That helps create the effect, though.

Hirschbiegel: It does, I think. I believe very much in using original locations, and not shooting on sets. I knew of course that we had to build this thing, but I wanted it as natural and close to the original as possible.

Ganz: I felt good [in the Bavaria Studios] because it was a huge, huge space. Entering this space you saw our set—which was seen in the film [as] a big thing—it was so small, in the corner of the huge [space]. Anytime I felt claustrophobic—because sometimes we had to shoot fourteen hours, yelling and screaming—I knew I could just step out. In thirty seconds, I'm out of this. There is space, and I can breathe, and it was a good feeling.

IGN: You resist the temptation to show what was going on outside of the bunker, maybe to show the camps or the other side of the horrors that were going on.

Hirschbiegel: It was impossible to depict that, really. The camps in ‘45 were either not existing anymore because the Russians had freed the few remaining prisoners, and what was still there—like Bergen-Belzen for instance—it was basically people who were dying by hunger, and you cannot depict that. It's impossible. I think you can't at any stage depict that horror. I did some research on that, for another film. It's just incomprehensible what happened there. It's like blasphemy. It's an insult to the victims, really, to try to recreate that situation at the camps. The only thing that we could have done would have been [to use]documentary footage, but then again it would have taken away from the intensity of the film, which very much relies on the audience being emotionally involved with these people, who are basically all bad, and all perpetrators.

IGN: I think with some films there would have been the temptation to somehow show Hitler doing something horrible, to kind of say, “You need to see that he is—”

Hirschbiegel: Well, he does horrible things, if you listen to what he says. It's ridiculous what the man says. It's obvious what it stands for. I have to assume, coming from a civilized nation and being here with an audience that comes from a civilized nation as well, that people just know what this stands for. Everybody knows about the camps. We know what these people are responsible for.

IGN: You run that clip of Traudl Junge—how much interaction did you have with her? Did you talk to her a great deal?

Hirschbiegel: No, I couldn't talk to her. She was dead already. It's taken from the documentary done by Andre Heller [Blind Spot] . When I took on the job, she was dead for half a year already. So I didn't have a chance to talk to her. I talked twice to Melissa Müller who was the editor of her book, and asked her about Traudl and her impressions of her. I got a lot of photographs of Traudl at various stages in her life, which were a great help.

AboutFilm: Is that footage [at the end of Downfall] of Traudl Junge from Blind Spot?

Hirschbiegel: Right.

IGN: Do you believe everything she says about being oblivious to what was going on? There are some people saying they think it's not true.

Hirschbiegel: I believe that she did not get any information about what was really going on from [Hitler's] inner circle, because there was this unwritten law that there was to be no talk about the camps, the Jews, the terrible way they treated the prisoners of war, and all that. So I buy that, because I know that it was like that. On the other hand, we know by now that most of the Germans knew, or at least had heard the rumor about what was going on in the camps. [The information] was very specific. They knew about the gas. They knew about millions of Jews being deported and purposefully killed. I mean, it was common knowledge worldwide. In March ‘42, the information was everywhere. The exiled Polish government got very precise descriptions of what happened in the camps, and Roosevelt got it as well as the Vatican. So, for me it's not believable that [people] did not know.

Ganz: I think the closer to Hitler you were personally, the better it was to— I mean, they had heard these rumors, and they knew something was going on, but it was not good to know too much, or to know precisely what's going on. So they said, “Let's shut our eyes.” Because what would they have done with the information if they had really, really understood what was going on? They were still ruling, and still in power. What were they going to do? It demands from yourself a position. Are you going to do something against it? You would be careful, I think. So it's better not to [put] yourself in that position, so [they said], “Jesus Christ, that's beyond comprehension,” and [left] it there. “We don't want to know too well what's going on.” You could see that in other countries, too.

AboutFilm: Looking at The Experiment and at Downfall, it seems to me that there's something that they have in common, in that they address a certain dark thing about human psychology. What is it that fascinates you there? What is it in the human psyche that interests you and led you to make these two movies?

Hirschbiegel: Well, I think any director is, if not fascinated, very much interested in evil, because evil seems to be the most powerful energy on the planet. If we look at all the plays that we have, and literature, evil is the guiding power. So as a director, you have to deal with that. But still there's a big difference between these two films. Doing The Experiment was my becoming a psychologist. Directing Downfall meant very much becoming an historian. Even the way Bruno and I worked together—

Ganz: Reconstructing history—

Hirschbiegel: He knew so much about this, and I knew so much about this. We were the only ones who really were on the same level of information and insight. Very often we were just discussing tiny little elements, like, “Do you think he would stand here, or he rather sit? Would it be this door? Should we calm it down?” All these things.

Ganz: In [many] bad German movies that were done, they don't dare to show Hitler. If you see him, it's from behind. And you see actors—good actors—wearing hair like hippies as SS Officers. They use a language that is common language from today, which is so completely different from the kind of language that was used then. They don't just care about reconstructing this. If you want to do a film about that period, people have to believe you, especially in Germany. They can judge what kind of language is used. They know that you never saw hair when [SS officers] their caps [on]—it was really short hair, not hippie hair. That's details that if you are going to reconstruct such a period you have to take of. To create basic things, so that people trust you.

Hirschbiegel: And the resemblance between [The Experiment and Downfall] is rather limited to that aspect that both deal, of course, with confined spaces. Furthermore I think they're very different. I could do some analyzing; I could show something about the human psychology behind the behavior of people in The Experiment. It's very tough to do that when it comes to the Third Reich, because it's such a complex subject.

Ganz: But you know, the bunker and the prison are kind of similar in a deep psychological way.

Hirschbiegel: Both have to do with a loss of a sense of reality, that's definitely true.

Oliver Hirschbiegel
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel at the time of Das Experiment (2001).


Bruno Ganz as Hitler
Swiss actor Bruno Ganz stars as Adolf Hitler in Downfall.


Juliane Köhler and Bruno Ganz
Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler) and Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) take wedding vows in Downfall.


Hotel Rwanda
Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) ventures outside his bunker in Downfall.


Bruno Ganz in DOWNFALL
Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) gives out awards for bravery to conscripted children in Downfall.


Bruno Ganz in DOWNFALL
Adolf Hiter (Bruno Ganz) sits with one of the Goebbels children in Downfall.


Q&A with Bruno Ganz

Bruno Ganz has enjoyed a long, remarkable career in European cinema. After first coming to international attention in Eric Rohmer's The Marquise of O (1976), He has starred in such diverse films as Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), Werner Herzog's Nosferatu (1979), and the successful Italian comedy Bread & Tulips (2000). Rarely has he appeared in American films, however—most recently in a small supporting role in Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004).

Ganz spent some time discussing his career with AboutFilm and IFN before Oliver Hirschbiegel joined the interview, and the conversation turned to Downfall.

AboutFilm: You were born in Switzerland, is that correct?

Ganz: Yes, I was born in Switzerland .

AboutFilm: And your mother is Italian, or Swiss Italian?

Ganz: No, real Italian, from the north, but Italian.

AboutFilm: You've had a long career. As you look back—

Ganz: Well, I'm quite an old man. I've been working for over forty years. That's long.

AboutFilm: Which particular films stand out for you, personally?

Ganz: Well, I think I appreciate a lot films that you maybe don't even know, like a German film called Knife in the Head [1978]. That was a political film. It's dealing with politics when we had, after ‘68, this terrorist group called Bader Meinhof. There was really [strong] pressure from the state toward society to denounce people, because they were not sleepers. They were active, [and therefore] must have slept somewhere, and found food—it was all clandestine; they were underground, and so there must have been supporters [among] normal bourgeois people. We had a very ugly climate of who's going to tell, and who knows what. The film is about this.

Also, I liked the first part of a film that was shot just in the main train station of Milano, an Italian film. It was a really big flop, but I liked the first hour. It was called Oggetti Smarriti [Lost and Found (1980)]. [Bernardo] Bertolucci's brother [Giuseppe] did it. I liked the two Wenders, Wings of Desire and The American Friend [1977]. I liked the other Italian film that I made, Pane e Tulipani [Bread and Tulips].

AboutFilm: How does Wim Wenders work with actors?

Ganz: He doesn't really work with actors. Rather, you are friends. He casts you because he likes you as a person. It's a lot of improvisation. The dialogues for the next day are prepared in the evening before, and things like this. He would even change the script [if] he noticed something going on while shooting, and he starts to think about how he could take this into his film because he loved what he saw. He would be ready to change the script to follow another idea. The thing between you and him is a completely personal exchange. “What do you think? Why did you use that? Why did you do this?” And you would explain it, and sometimes he said, “Well, I would prefer to repeat this and try something else.” And you would say, “No, I think it was—” and he would sometimes agree. It's really trust. He trusts you and you trust him. But that has nothing to do with the finding of images, what he's doing on camera. That's something completely different. He has a knack for that, a very special view.

AboutFilm: What about Nosferatu and working with Eric Rohmer in The Marquise of O? What are your feelings about those films now?

Ganz: The Rohmer was my first real movie. I saw that [again] one or two years ago. This [film] is connected very strongly to German literature, and the way it's done is very sober. It's an early Rohmer film. Somehow, in its way it's a beautiful film still, and I like to watch it. Sometimes I felt myself a bit clumsy—what I did. But I like the film. I like this kind of very strict telling a story that Rohmer had. And Nosferatu—I was there, but it was film between [Klaus] Kinski and Herzog.

IGN: You did The Manchurian Candidate. Is that a move toward American films?

Ganz: Hopefully, yes. I had a very good time. I didn't expect it. I had high respect and love for Mr. Jonathan Demme, because I had seen Silence of the Lambs, and two weeks before I went to America I saw Philadelphia. I thought he knows what he's doing, and he's just great. And I am a big fan of Denzel Washington. I was so tempted to do this—for a European actor to work with these two guys is something. On the other hand, it's always the same thing. In former times [a German] could get into American films as a Nazi, and now you can get into an American film as a scientist. So okay, I didn't like that very much. But those two guys were so great. It was like I thought [it would be]. They were so generous, and it was such a pleasure. I had a very, very good time.

IGN: Were you a fan of the original Manchurian Candidate?

Ganz: No, not really.

IGN: Did you see it in preparation for this?

Ganz: [I saw it] so I compare what was done on the script for the new version. I considered [that script] a great work. But then I saw the film some days ago, on the flight to New York. I hadn't seen it; I missed it somehow; I don't why. And it was quite different from what I expected. The editing was even more, let's say, complicated than the script was.

AboutFilm: You have worked in so many countries. How does working in Germany compare to working in other countries like Italy, France, and the United States?

Ganz: Well, the United States—it was Paramount Pictures, it was incredible, it was like an army. There were about 200 people. You have all you need, and even more. It's a machine. It gives you a big feeling of security. You deal with real staff, and it's all ready. It's very generous. That's different. We are not in that situation in Europe. [long pause]

The French are very strict about time. They start a day of filming with a meal, at noon. First you have lunch—one hour, seven courses. A real French lunch. Vino. That's how they start working. It's amazing. And after seven, eight hours they stop. The trade union is very strict. In Germany, more and more you are working fourteen hours, fifteen hours, sixteen hours, even on a film with a considerable budget like Downfall. But more and more, it's low budget, it's not enough money, which means that you are going to work for eighteen hours a day, and it's terrible. I don't like it. Italy is Italy. It's a nice country.

AboutFilm: Is it less strict with time?

Ganz: If it has to be, but they try to be in the limits of what is the usual day. I think it's ten or twelve hours, and they try to keep that. Sometimes it's more, and okay. But they are real allegri. Son sempre allegri. It's a mentality thing of these different countries and you feel it in the work.

[Read the AboutFilm review of Downfall]

[Read the 2002 AboutFilm interviews with Oliver Hirschbiegel and Moritz Bleibtreu]

Feature and Interviews © March 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
DOWNFALL images © 2005 Newmarket Films. All Rights Reserved.
Oliver Hirschbiegel photograph © 2002 Samuel Goldwyn Films.

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