It's always an odd feeling to come to a classic film long after everyone else has already seen it. It's especially weird in this case, because Downfall has become famous in the nearly 20 years since its release as the source for endless parodies of one particular scene. If you haven't seen Downfall, you might think you know nothing about it, but chances are you've seen at least one of these:
There's nothing wrong with these parodies, and sure, we know when we watch them that they aren't meant to represent the actual movie. But while I didn't expect to see 2 1/2 hours of Hitler rants, I realized as I watched that the endless parodies did give me a warped sense of what went on in Downfall. I assumed the entire movie would take place in Hitler's bunker, but actually much of the film takes place outside the bunker, as Berlin falls to the Russians. The isolation of Hitler in his bunker is contrasted with the realities of what the German people are experiencing at that moment.
Some have criticized Downfall for showing "the human side" of Hitler and his Nazis, and the presentation of scenes in the bunker do engender a certain uncomfortable connection with the bunker's inhabitants. As Charlie Bertsch wrote, "Even though Hitler is clearly mad and his associates mostly venal and inept, their dire predicament and the time viewers spend with them in the claustrophobically close quarters of the bunker elicit a kind of structural identification, a sympathy in spite of itself à la the famous 'Stockholm Syndrome', that threatens to conceal the magnitude of their crimes." This makes the scenes outside the bunker crucial: once we lose the claustrophobic connection, once we see the horrors in Berlin, we awake from our Stockholm Syndrome.
Perhaps lost in all of this is that Downfall is a great movie. Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler is uncanny. Ulrich Matthes' Goebbels looks like a zombie, which is somehow scarily appropriate. And Alexandra Maria Lara perfectly captures the complications of her character, Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge, who survived and later in life wrote a memoir that is one of the sources for the film.
Here is the actual scene that inspired a thousand parodies:
Personal addendum: on our honeymoon 50 years ago, my wife and I went to a movie. That became a tradition ... every year on our anniversary, we see a movie together. That honeymoon movie was Hitler: The Last Ten Days, with Alec Guinness. Here is the "Steiner" scene from that movie ... it's startling how much it resembles Downfall, which came out more than 30 years later: