The Fast and the Führer-rious: Hitler on Screen

When Steve Jobs unveiled the itampon last week, the collective Internet masses immediately began praising or admonishing it. However through all the applause, analysis and stupid jokes about the gadget’s name, a sole dissenting voice stood out from the others.

This voice is known internationally for his condemning tirades on topics ranging from the Lisbon Treaty to the Oasis split and not forgetting the most famous of all: a ban from Xbox Live. I am talking of course about Adolph Hitler, meme, mass-murderer and mustache enthusiast.

When Oliver Hirschbiegel directed Downfall in 2004, many predicted its impact would stem from Hitler being portrayed as a human being (and by a German actor no less). But while the film was critical lauded, its most lasting impression can really be seen in the “Hitler reacts to…” videos that have earned millions of viewings online. These videos take a scene in which Hitler is told the war is unwinnable and replace it’s subtitles with new words that lend what was originally a grave and shocking rant an often-hilarious new perspective. But do these videos represent how we can view a mass-murderer in a humorous light or do they just represent the latest in a long line of cartoonish cinematic depictions of Hitler? This time last year one such video (that parodied a lack of parking in Tel Aviv) led to heated debate with Holocaust survivors who felt such subjects shouldn’t be joked about at all. Playwright Bertolt Brecht once said “One forgets too easily the difference between a man and his image, and that there is none between the sound of his voice on the screen and in real life”. So can Hitler be depicted in films in an accurate way without descending to parody or sympathy? Sounds about as difficult from segueing from tampon jokes to Brecht quotes…

Understandably films about Hitler didn’t begin to emerge en masse until the 1970’s. The BBC kicked things off by producing The Death of Adolf Hitler in 1973 with Frank Finlay in the central role. Full of dark humor, overwrought theatrics and a suitably frenzied performance from Finlay (that would earn him a BAFTA), the film seems content to border on the ridiculous and avoids any hint of the tragedy of that its successors would slather on. The same year saw the release of Hitler: The Last Ten Days that cast British acting legend Alec Guinness as the Führer. The film is a remake of an Austrian film from 1955 called Der Letzte Akt, but fails to accurately portray Hitler. Guinness retains his refined British accent in the role, which combined with a woeful and inaccurate script mean the film comes across as more a historical reenactment than compelling drama.

Although German filmmakers took a more reserved approach to depicting their former leader, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg took a the avant garde route in 1977 with Hitler: A Film From Germany. This BBC produced film is a phantasmagoria of Nazi imagery, elaborate monologues and puppets all soundtracked by Wagner that runs for just over seven hours. With its length and radicalism, the film was never going to find a mainstream audience but does remain one of the more memorable depictions of Hitler on screen. Eschewing the conventions that both its predecessors and successors would follow, Syberberg (despite recent anti-Semitic comments) crafted an original and damning comment.

However convention returned in 1981, when HBO produced The Bunker with Anthony Hopkins taking up the mantle passed on by Alec Guinness. Once again the film traces the final days of Hitler as he rants and raves from his underground bunker. Hopkins inevitably won praise for his performance, but the film was full of historical inaccuracies and the TV-actor heavy supporting cast means it doesn’t achieve any real resonance.

For the next two decades screen portrayals of Hitler were limited to the purely fictional. Steven Spielberg gave him an amusing cameo in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, before realising how serious the whole business was with Schindler’s List. Other films like Fatherland, The Empty Mirror and Moloch all had Hitler centered plots but given they were all based in fiction, don’t really count as accurate depictions.

However one film that stands out from the other fictitious accounts of Hitler is Menno Meyjes’ Max. It’s the story of Jewish art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack) and young painter Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). The film makes no bones about its imaginary premise, but still manages to be compelling nonetheless. Portraying Hitler as a twisted, unsociable malcontent who earns the pity of a fellow war veteran, Noah Taylor is quite convincing in the difficult role. John Cusack is equally impressive, despite delivering lines like “You’re a hard man to like Hitler” and “C’mon Hitler I’ll buy you a milkshake”.  But once again, given Max is unabashed fiction it doesn’t provide a credible portrait of the man.

Just before Downfall was released, a TV miniseries called Hitler: The Rise of Evil was made. While other films either told the story of Hitler’s final days or invented new stories entirely, The Rise of Evil concentrated on his ascent from Vienna’s slums to Chancellor of Germany. Robert Carlyle played Hitler as a volatile psychopath (echoing his Begbie from Trainspotting) and was assisted by a talented supporting cast featuring Peter O’Toole, Liev Schrieber and Peter Stormare. But once again following Guinness, Hopkins and Taylor, Carlyle maintains his own accent (in this case Scottish), which instantly renders their performance dubious. So while the film has many strengths, its weaknesses such as its multiple inaccuracies and some occasionally over the top acting from Carlyle meant it didn’t have much of an impact upon release.

And then there was Downfall. There isn’t much left to be said about this film. Bruno Ganz pulls off the impossible and balances his performance between psychotic monster and extremely deluded human being.

Lately we’ve seen Hitler in Valkyrie, where Tom Cruise tries to kill him and Inglourious Basterds where Quentin Tarrintino actually kills him. It’s unlikely anyone will trump Ganz’s performance, as most filmmakers relegate him to the role of pantomime villain. But perhaps that’s appropriate, as any excessively sympathetic portrayal has to potential to veer into reverence. Hitler was an abomination, and an accurate portrayal is therefore almost impossible. But at the same time excessive parody is inappropriate given the horrors he inflicted on the world. So a balance should be struck, a balance that Ganz achieved in Downfall. But given that his performance will probably be remembered mostly for the Internet meme it created, it looks like people prefer Hitler as an preposterous enfant terrible than the slaughtering madman he was.