The Famous Downfall Scene Explained: What Really Happened in Hitler’s Bunker at the End?

Before his role as Hitler in the 2004 Ger­man film Down­fall turned Swiss actor Bruno Ganz into a viral inter­net star, he was best known for play­ing an angel who com­forts the dying in Wim Wen­ders’ 1987 Wings of Desire. “Peo­ple real­ly seemed to think of me as a guardian angel,” he told The Irish Times in 2005. “Peo­ple would bring their chil­dren before me for a bless­ing or some­thing.” Sev­en­teen years lat­er, the self-described intro­vert trans­formed his gen­tle, com­fort­ing face into the Nazi screen mon­ster: “Noth­ing pre­pared me for what must be the most con­vinc­ing screen Hitler yet,” wrote The Guardian’s Rob Mack­ie. “An old, bent, sick dic­ta­tor with the shak­ing hands of some­one with Parkinson’s, alter­nat­ing between rage and despair in his last days in the bunker.”

This por­tray­al has nev­er been sur­passed, and per­haps it nev­er will be. How many fic­tion­al­ized film treat­ments of these events do we need? Espe­cial­ly since this one lives for­ev­er in meme form: Ganz end­less­ly spit­ting and ges­tic­u­lat­ing, while cap­tions sub­ti­tle him rant­i­ng about “his piz­za arriv­ing late” – Gael Fash­ing­baeur Coop­er writes at cnet – or “the Red Wed­ding scene on Game of Thrones, or find­ing out he was­n’t accept­ed into Har­ry Pot­ter’s Hog­warts.” As Vir­ginia Hef­fer­nan wrote at The New York Times in 2008 – maybe the height of the meme’s viral­i­ty – “It seems that late-life Hitler can be made to speak for almost any­one in the midst of a cri­sis…. Some­thing in the spec­ta­cle of an auto­crat falling to pieces evi­dent­ly has wide­spread appeal.”

Giv­en the wide­spread pref­er­ence for memes over facts, the ubiq­ui­ty of the Down­fall clip as viral spec­ta­cle, and the renewed rel­e­vance of mur­der­ous autoc­ra­cy in the West, we might find our­selves won­der­ing about the his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy of Down­fall’s por­tray­al. Did the dic­ta­tor real­ly lose it in the end? And why do we find this idea so sat­is­fy­ing? To begin to answer the first ques­tion, we might turn to the video above, “That Down­fall Scene Explained,” from the mak­ers of The Great War, billed as the “biggest ever crowd­fund­ed his­to­ry doc­u­men­tary.” Despite tak­ing as their sub­ject the First World War, the film­mak­ers also cov­er some of the events of WWII for fans.

First, we must remem­ber that Down­fall is an “artis­tic inter­pre­ta­tion.” It con­dens­es weeks into days, days into hours, and takes oth­er such dra­mat­ic lib­er­ties with accounts gath­ered from eye­wit­ness­es. So, “what is Hitler freak­ing out about” in the famous scene?, the sub­ti­tle asks. It is April 1945. The Red Army is 40 kilo­me­ters from Nazi head­quar­ters in Berlin. The dictator’s Chief of the Army Gen­er­al Staff Hans Krebs explains the sit­u­a­tion. Hitler remains in con­trol, draw­ing pos­si­ble lines of attack on the map, believ­ing that SS com­man­der Felix Steiner’s Panz­er divi­sions will repel the Sovi­ets.

Lit­tle does he know that Steiner’s divi­sions exist only on paper. In real­i­ty, the SS leader has refused to take to the field, con­vinced the bat­tle can­not be won. Anoth­er Gen­er­al, Alfred Jodel, steps in and deliv­ers the news. Hitler then clears the room of all but Jodl, Krebs, and two oth­er high-rank­ing gen­er­als. Joseph Goebbels and Mar­tin Bor­mann stay behind as well. Then (as played by Ganz, that is) Hitler has that famous screen melt­down. The out­burst “shows just how he had cen­tral­ized the chain of com­mand,” and how it failed him.

This may have been so. Down­fall presents us with a con­vinc­ing, if high­ly con­densed, por­trait of the major per­son­al­i­ties involved. But “the scene that spawned a thou­sand YouTube par­o­dies,” writes Alex Ross at The New York­er, “is based, in part, on prob­lem­at­ic sources.” One of these, the so-called Hitler Book, was com­piled from “tes­ti­mo­ny of two Hitler adju­tants, Otto Gün­sche and Heinz Linge, who had been cap­tured by the Red Army and inter­ro­gat­ed at length…. The most curi­ous thing about The Hitler Book is that it was intend­ed for a sin­gle read­er: Joseph Stal­in.” The Sovi­et dic­ta­tor want­ed, and got, “a lav­ish­ly detailed chron­i­cle of Hitler’s psy­cho­log­i­cal implo­sion.” Oth­er sources “con­vey a more com­plex pic­ture.”

Accord­ing to oth­er accounts, Hitler was “gen­er­al­ly com­posed” when learn­ing about the Red Army attack on Berlin, even as he decid­ed to give up and die in the bunker. Accord­ing to Nazi stenog­ra­ph­er, Ger­hard Her­rge­sell, it was the gen­er­als who “vio­lent­ly opposed” sur­ren­der and spoke harsh­ly to Hitler to per­suade him to defend the city – a speech that had some effect dur­ing an April 22nd meet­ing. It did not, of course, pre­vent Hitler and his new bride Eva Braun’s even­tu­al April 30 sui­cide. For Ross, how­ev­er, this more com­plex his­tor­i­cal pic­ture shows “how cults of per­son­al­i­ty feed as much upon the aspi­ra­tions of their mem­bers as upon the ambi­tions of their lead­ers.” The mem­bers of Hitler’s inner cir­cle were as com­mit­ted to the ide­ol­o­gy as the leader him­self.

There is more to the film’s title in Ger­man, Unter­gang, than its trans­la­tion sug­gests, Ross writes: “It car­ries con­no­ta­tions of decline, dis­so­lu­tion, or destruc­tion.” When we fix the end of Nazism to the sui­ci­dal death of one delu­sion­al, drug-addled mad­man, we lose sight of this wider mean­ing. In the viral spread of the Hitler meme, we see a kind of com­i­cal­ly banal tri­umph. It is “the out­come,” Hef­fer­nan argues, that “Hitler, the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure sought….” A sit­u­a­tion in which he becomes “not the author of the Holo­caust” but “the brute voice of the every­man uncon­scious,” a pro­lif­er­at­ing griev­ance machine. From anoth­er per­spec­tive, imag­in­ing Hitler’s end may offer “com­fort­ing moral clo­sure to a sto­ry of lim­it­less hor­ror,” writes Ross. But it has helped feed the myth that it could only hap­pen there and then: “Now Ger­man his­to­ri­ans are end­ing their books on Nazism with thin­ly veiled ref­er­ences to an Amer­i­can Unter­gang.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Did Hitler Rise to Pow­er? : New TED-ED Ani­ma­tion Pro­vides a Case Study in How Fas­cists Get Demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly Elect­ed

Carl Jung Psy­cho­an­a­lyzes Hitler: “He’s the Uncon­scious of 78 Mil­lion Ger­mans.” “With­out the Ger­man Peo­ple He’d Be Noth­ing” (1938)

Hitler Was ‘Blitzed’ On Cocaine & Opi­ates Dur­ing World War II: Hear a Wide-Rang­ing Inter­view with Best-Sell­ing Author Nor­man Ohler

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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