A startlingly convincing portrayal of Adolf Hitler in a new German movie about his last 12 days is causing controversy with critics challenging its treatment of the “monster” as a human being.
“The Downfall” (“Der Untergang”), based on eyewitness accounts and on the book of that name by historian Joachim Fest, opens in German theaters next month and is one of the country’s first attempts to characterize Hitler in a film.
Told from the point of view of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s personal secretaries, the film marks a more relaxed approach to Germany’s past, reflected in an increasing number of German-made feature films about the Nazi era.
Confined to his sparsely furnished, bare-walled bunker, Hitler orders nonexistent units into battle and declares the defeated German nation “has shown itself unworthy” of him.
His aides drink up the last wine and discuss how best to commit suicide while outside, old men and children are ordered into pointless fighting against Russian tanks. Hitler commits suicide on April 30, but the fighting goes on for another week.
Swiss actor Bruno Ganz achieves a photographic likeness with the stooped, gray, 56-year-old dictator plagued by Parkinson’s disease that makes him hide his shaking hand behind his back.
Ganz’s command of Hitler’s rolling ‘Rs’ and of his strange, clipped Bavarian-Austrian accent give him a natural edge over previous portrayals by British actors Alec Guinness in the 1972 film “The Last Ten Days” or Anthony Hopkins in “The Bunker.”
His hypnotizing outbursts of spitting rage at the army’s inability to stem the Soviet advance on Berlin are interspersed with moments of kindness for his female staff and tenderness toward Eva Braun, whom he marries a day before their suicide.
Controversially, the portrayal of Hitler verges on the sympathetic at times, and the Holocaust is referred to only briefly in his tirades.
Hitler ‘the man’
Producer Bernd Eichinger, who produced “The Name of the Rose,” says a degree of empathy is unavoidable.
“If you want to understand history you have to understand the people that make it,” he told German ZDF television.
Spiegel magazine devoted its front page to the film this week and said Eichinger had managed what no one had before: “To give the absurd drama in the concrete grotto a real face.”
But critics are asking if such treatment is justified for the man who ordered the Holocaust and started World War Two that killed 50 million people.
“‘Der Untergang’ prompts the question whether one should be allowed to feel sympathy for Hitler,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung wrote.
Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel wrote: “This Hitler, who is so nice to the female bunker staff while he sends a whole people to the slaughter outside, does indeed keep awakening sympathy.
“A lonely screamer, betrayed by his followers, who stands firm until the end — isn’t that a hero, maybe not as appealing as the few positive supporting characters, but all the larger than life for that?”
Eichinger said it had been time for a German film on the subject.
“If you throw the spotlight on the biggest possible physical and psychological collapse of an entire civilization, namely our German nation, then it must be possible for us to tell this story ourselves. We have to,” he said.