The film begins with an excerpt from the documentary Im toten Winkel (2002), featuring the real Traudl Junge expressing her guilt and shame for admiring Hitler in her youth. The film continues showing Hitler (Bruno Ganz) hiring Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) as his secretary at the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia in November 1942.
The story resumes on 20 April 1945, Hitler's birthday, during the Battle of Berlin. A loud artillery blast wakes up Traudl, Gerda Christian and Constanze Manziarly in the room they share. Down in the Führerbunker, Hitler is informed by Wilhelm Burgdorf that Berlin is under attack and then by Karl Koller that the Red Army has advanced to within 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) of central Berlin.
At Hitler's birthday reception, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and his SS adjutant Hermann Fegelein plead with Hitler to leave the city. Instead, Hitler declares, "I will defeat them in Berlin, or face my downfall." Himmler leaves to negotiate surrender terms with the Western Allies, behind Hitler's back. In another part of the city, a group of Hitler Youth members are bolstering defenses. Peter, one of the members, is urged by his father to desert but refuses.
In yet another part of the city, SS physician Ernst-Günther Schenck convinces an SS general to allow him to ignore an evacuation order and is then requested by Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke to bring any available medical supplies to the Reich Chancellery. Meanwhile, Hitler discusses his new scorched earth policy with his Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, while Eva Braun holds a party that is broken up by artillery fire. Traudl suffers an anxiety attack at the realisation that the bunker is under siege and begins crying.
The next day, while his unit is fighting the Red Army forces, General Helmuth Weidling is summoned to the bunker to await execution for allegedly ordering a retreat to the west. After explaining to Hans Krebs and Burgdorf that it was a misunderstanding, Weidling is promoted by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel to oversee Berlin's crumbling defences. Hitler orders an attack from Felix Steiner's unit to stem the Soviet advance – army groups which at this point only exist on paper.
Later, Hitler is informed by Krebs and Alfred Jodl that Steiner could not mount the attack, allowing the Red Army to further advance closer to Berlin. Dismissing everyone from the room except for Keitel, Jodl, Krebs, Burgdorf and Goebbels, Hitler flies into a furious rage against what he perceives are traitorous actions against him and finally acknowledges that the war is lost. However, he is determined to stay in Berlin to the end, even if it means killing himself, saying "But, gentlemen, if you believe I'm going to leave Berlin, you are seriously mistaken. I'd rather blow my brains out."
After seeing conscripted civilians of the Volkssturm needlessly gunned down in battle, General Mohnke confronts Joseph Goebbels, their commander, about the slaughter. Goebbels tells Mohnke that he has no pity for the civilians, as they chose their fate. Hitler loses his sense of reality and orders Field Marshal Keitel to find Admiral Karl Dönitz, whom Hitler believes is gathering troops in the north, and help him plan an offensive to recover the Romanian oil fields.
Later on, Martin Bormann interrupts a meeting between Hitler, Goebbels, and Walther Hewel to read a message from Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring requesting permission to assume command and become head-of-state. Hitler responds by stripping Göring of his rank, ordering his arrest, and naming Robert Ritter von Greim as his replacement. Hitler then receives further upsetting news when Speer informs him that he has defied Hitler's scorched earth policy orders. Hitler does not punish Speer, but he does not shake his hand as Speer leaves.
At dinner, Hitler receives a report that Himmler has contacted Folke Bernadotte in an attempt to negotiate surrender. Hitler orders von Greim and his mistress, test pilot Hanna Reitsch to find Himmler and that his adjutant Fegelein be brought to him. After being informed by Otto Günsche that Fegelein has deserted, Hitler orders Fegelein executed for treason.
Reichsphysician SS Ernst-Robert Grawitz, the head of the German Red Cross also responsible for Nazi human medical experiments, asks Hitler for permission to evacuate Berlin for fear of reprisal from the Soviets for his actions. When he does not get it, Grawitz goes home and kills himself and his family with grenades. That night, Fegelein is arrested and executed by an RSD squad.
News grows even grimmer as Weidling reports to Hitler there are no reserves left, and Mohnke reports that the Red Army is only 300 to 400 metres from the Reich Chancellery. Hitler reassures the officers that General Walther Wenck's 12th Army will save them. After Hitler leaves the conference room, Weidling firmly asks if it is truly possible for Wenck to attack; the generals all agree that it is impossible, but still resolve to never surrender. After midnight, Hitler dictates his last will and testament to Traudl, before marrying Eva Braun. Hitler orders Goebbels to leave Berlin, but Goebbels refuses. The following morning, Weidling reports that not only was Wenck not able to attack, all of their remaining armies are now incapable of any meaningful action, and that the Reich is no more than a few hours away from total defeat. Finally accepting that there is no hope, Hitler decides to kill himself before he can be captured.
Hitler summons Dr. Schenck, Dr. Werner Haase, and nurse Erna Flegel to the bunker to thank them for their medical services for the wounded. Dr. Haase explains to Hitler the best method for suicide as well as for administering poison to Hitler's dog, Blondi. Hitler eats his final meal and then bids farewell to the bunker staff. He gives Magda Goebbels his own Golden Party Badge Number 1. Emotionally overcome by the gesture, Magda tries to convince Hitler to reconsider suicide. Hitler and Eva then kill themselves and, as per his orders, are cremated in the Chancellery garden.
Meanwhile, Krebs meets with Marshal Vasily Chuikov of the Red Army to negotiate peace terms but returns unsuccessful. Goebbels berates his generals, reminding them Hitler forbade them to surrender. Hans Fritsche leaves the room to try and take surrender matters into his own hands, only to nearly be shot by an angry Burgdorf.
After this, with the help of SS Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, Magda kills her six young children with cyanide. She and her husband then walk up to the Chancellery garden, where Goebbels shoots his wife and then turns the gun on himself. As the remaining staff in the bunker evacuate, Krebs and Burgdorf kill themselves. Weidling broadcasts to the city that Hitler is dead and that he will be seeking an immediate ceasefire.
Traudl, Gerda, and the remaining SS troops that managed to leave the bunker are sticking with Schenck, Mohnke, and Günsche as they try to flee the city. Hewel manages to join them, but after word reaches them of the surrender he and several others shoot themselves. Meanwhile, the child soldiers have by now all died except for Peter, who also discovers that a Greifkommando or Feldgendarmerie squad has executed his parents.
While the Red Army ranks are only streets away, Traudl decides to leave. Peter pulls her through the masses, including Red Army soldiers. At a ruined bridge, Peter finds a bicycle and they pedal away from Berlin. The epilogue then tells the fates of the other characters and one final excerpt from the 2002 documentary, where the real life Traudl appears before the credits.
The film was based upon the books Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich (1945), by historian Joachim Fest; Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary (1947), the memoirs of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries (co-written with Melissa Müller); Inside the Third Reich (first published in German in 1969), the memoirs of Albert Speer, one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials to survive both the war and the Nuremberg trials; Hitler's Last Days: An Eye–Witness Account (first English translation 1973), by Gerhard Boldt; Das Notlazarett unter der Reichskanzlei: Ein Arzt erlebt Hitlers Ende in Berlin by Doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck; and Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936–1949 (1992), Siegfried Knappe's memoir.
Ganz conducted four months of research to prepare for the role, studying an 11-minute recording of Hitler in private conversation with Finnish Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim in order to properly mimic Hitler's conversational voice and distinct Austrian dialect.
The film is set mostly in and around the Führerbunker. Hirschbiegel made an effort to accurately reconstruct the look and atmosphere of the bunker through eyewitness accounts, survivors' memoirs, and other historical sources. According to his commentary on the DVD, Der Untergang was filmed in Berlin, Munich, and in a district of Saint Petersburg, Russia with many buildings designed by German architects, which was said to resemble many parts of 1940s Berlin. The film was ranked number 48 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
The film's impending release in 2004 provoked a debate in German film magazines and newspapers. The tabloid Bild asked, "Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?"
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a "Certified Fresh" rating of 91%, based on 136 reviews with an average score of 8.1 out of 10. The consensus states "Downfall is an illuminating, thoughtful and detailed account of Hitler's last days." The film also has a score of 82 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 35 reviews, indicating "Universal Acclaim".
With respect to the film's depiction of Hitler, The New Yorker film critic David Denby noted:
As a piece of acting, Ganz's work is not just astounding, it's actually rather moving. But I have doubts about the way his virtuosity has been put to use. By emphasizing the painfulness of Hitler's defeat Ganz has ... made the dictator into a plausible human being. Considered as biography, the achievement (if that's the right word) ... is to insist that the monster was not invariably monstrous – that he was kind to his cook and his young female secretaries, loved his German shepherd, Blondi, and was surrounded by loyal subordinates. We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did?
A few journalists [in Germany] wondered aloud whether the "human" treatment of Hitler might not inadvertently aid the neo-Nazi movement. But in his many rants in [the film] Hitler says that the German people do not deserve to survive, that they have failed him by losing the war and must perish – not exactly the sentiments [...] that would spark a recruitment drive. This Hitler may be human, but he's as utterly degraded a human being as has ever been shown on the screen, a man whose every impulse leads to annihilation.
After previewing the film, Hitler biographer Sir Ian Kershaw wrote in The Guardian:
Knowing what I did of the bunker story, I found it hard to imagine that anyone (other than the usual neo-Nazi fringe) could possibly find Hitler a sympathetic figure during his bizarre last days. And to presume that it might be somehow dangerous to see him as a human being – well, what does that thought imply about the self-confidence of a stable, liberal democracy? Hitler was, after all, a human being, even if an especially obnoxious, detestable specimen. We well know that he could be kind and considerate to his secretaries, and with the next breath show cold ruthlessness, dispassionate brutality, in determining the deaths of millions.
Of all the screen depictions of the Führer, even by famous actors, such as Alec Guinness or Anthony Hopkins, this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler's voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic.
Addressing other critics like Denby, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote:
Admiration I did not feel. Sympathy I felt in the sense that I would feel it for a rabid dog, while accepting that it must be destroyed. I do not feel the film provides "a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did", because I feel no film can, and no response would be sufficient. As we regard this broken and pathetic Hitler, we realize that he did not alone create the Third Reich, but was the focus for a spontaneous uprising by many of the German people, fueled by racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear. He was skilled in the ways he exploited that feeling, and surrounded himself by gifted strategists and propagandists, but he was not a great man, simply one armed by fate to unleash unimaginable evil. It is useful to reflect that racism, xenophobia, grandiosity and fear are still with us, and the defeat of one of their manifestations does not inoculate us against others.
Hirschbiegel confirmed that the film's makers sought to give Hitler a three-dimensional personality: "We know from all accounts that he was a very charming man – a man who managed to seduce a whole people into barbarism."
The film was nominated for the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in the 77th Academy Awards. The film also won the 2005 BBC Four World Cinema competition.
The author Giles MacDonogh criticised the film for sympathetic portrayals of Wilhelm Mohnke and Ernst-Günther Schenck. Mohnke was rumoured, but never proven, to have ordered the execution of a group of British POWs in the Wormhoudt massacre near Dunkirk in 1940, while Schenck's experiments with medicinal plants in 1938 allegedly led to the deaths of a number of concentration camp prisoners. In response, the film's director stated he did his own research and did not find the allegations as to Schenck convincing. Mohnke strongly denied the accusations against him, telling historian Thomas Fischer, "I issued no orders not to take English prisoners or to execute prisoners."
German director Wim Wenders called the filmmakers' collaboration with a history professor "a strategic move to compile cultural capital and move the film beyond the reach of reprehensibility, challenge, or contradiction by writers or critics unwilling to engage the material other than by pointing out historical inaccuracies." He felt that the film said: "Wir wissen, wovon wir reden" ("We know what we're talking about"). He argued that Der Untergang presented an uncritical viewpoint toward the barbarism of its subject matter and accused the filmmakers of "Verharmlosung" ("trivialising"). Wenders supported this observation with close readings of the film's first scene, and of Hitler's final scene, suggesting that in each case a particular set of cinematographic and editorial choices left each scene emotionally charged, resulting in a glorifying effect.
On its broadcast in the UK, Channel 4 marketed it with the strapline: "It's a happy ending. He dies".
The movie is well known as the inspiration for "Downfall parodies". One scene in the film, in which Hitler launches into a furious tirade upon finally realizing that the war is lost, has become a staple of internet videos. In these videos, the original German audio is retained, but new subtitles are added so that Hitler and his subordinates seem to be reacting instead to some setback in present-day politics, sports, entertainment, popular culture, or everyday life. Other scenes from various portions of the film have been parodied in the same manner, including the scenes where Hitler orders Otto Günsche to find SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, and where Hitler discusses a counterattack against advancing Soviet forces with his generals.
By 2010, there were thousands of such parodies, including many in which Hitler is incensed that people keep making Downfall parodies.
The parodies, as well as the film itself, have also gained a cult following, spawning a community of YouTube users who call themselves "Untergangers", devoted to the practice of making Downfall-related videos. Some of them have cited their reasons for making the parodies. Stacy Lee Blackmon, a YouTube user known for maintaining the Hitler Rants Parodies channel, has over 1500 videos to his name as of January 2017. In an interview with the Swedish magazine show Kobra, Blackmon denied that parody makers are neo-Nazi sympathizers and stated that the Unterganger community disparages Nazism.
The film's director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, spoke positively about these parodies in a 2010 interview with New York magazine, saying that many of them were funny and they were a fitting extension of the film's purpose: "The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality. I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like." Nevertheless, Constantin Film has taken an "ambivalent" view of the parodies and has asked video sites to remove many of them. On 21 April 2010, the producers initiated a removal of parody videos from YouTube. This prompted posting of videos of Hitler complaining about the fact that the parodies were being taken down, and a resurgence of the videos on the site.
In October 2010, YouTube stopped blocking Downfall-derived parodies. Corynne McSherry, an attorney specializing in intellectual property and free speech issues for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: "All the Downfall parody videos that I've seen are very strong fair use cases and so they're not infringing, and they shouldn't be taken down." Constantin Film went on to produce and distribute the Hitler-themed comedy Look Who's Back (2015), which includes an extended spoof of the oft-parodied scene from Downfall.
In January 2012, British Labour MP Tom Harris stepped down from his Internet adviser role following adverse media reaction to his Downfall parody ridiculing Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.
In July 2013, Jefferies Group, an American investment firm, was ordered by a Hong Kong court to pay $1.86 million to former equity trading head Grant Williams for firing him for sending out a newsletter that linked to a Hitler parody video, mocking JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon.