Does Adolf Hitler movie ‘Downfall’ humanize Nazi Germany’s monstrous Führer? And is that bad?
Should history’s monsters be portrayed as movie monsters akin to Godzilla, Freddy Krueger, and the Alien/Aliens creatures, or as complex, recognizably human – albeit malevolent – beings? That’s the question surrounding an upcoming German-produced Adolf Hitler movie.
According to various reports, the most hated 20th-century beast has undergone a humanizing makeover in the Oliver Hirschbiegel-directed World War II drama Downfall / Der Untergang: Hitler und das Ende des 3. Reiches starring veteran Bruno Ganz (The American Friend, Wings of Desire) as Nazi Germany’s idolized Der Führer.
Based on historian Joachim Fest’s bestseller Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich and on the memoirs of the Nazi dictator’s last personal secretary, Traudl Junge, Downfall depicts the final gasps of the Nazi regime, as its leader stood besieged in his underground Führerbunker while the Soviet Red Army battled German forces in the streets of Berlin.
During this period, Hitler suffers from physical tremors and psychotic delusions, and explodes into wild rages. On the sunny side, in his more sedate moments he shows courteousness and warmth toward Junge (played by Alexandra Maria Lara), wife-to-be Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), and dog Blondi.
Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler: Humanized monster or monstrously human?
But how effective is Bruno Ganz’s “humanized” Hitler?
Joachim Fest, a “historical consultant” during the production of Downfall, affirms that Ganz “is really Hitler. When you look at him you feel a chill down your spine.”
The Swiss-born actor, who received worldwide acclaim for his humanized angel in Wim Wenders’ 1987 romantic fantasy Wings of Desire / Der Himmel über Berlin, says the following about his character: “I’m not ashamed of the fact that I could feel sympathy for [Adolf Hitler] during fleeting seconds.”
Others, however, have been troubled by this newfound humanness. In fact, some in the German media have raised the specter that Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Hitler movie will be eagerly embraced by neo-Nazis.
The venerated Der Spiegel, on the other hand, has taken a less alarmist view. In a recent cover story devoted to Downfall, the news magazine asserts that producer-screenwriter Bernd Eichinger has achieved a unique feat by “giving the absurd drama in the bunker a real face.”
Produced at a cost of €13.5 million (US$16.5 million), the two-and-a-half-hour Downfall is one of the most expensive German films ever made.
Hitler movie ‘Downfall’ is box office hit in an unlikely place: Germany
Sept. 20 update: No less than 480,000 German filmgoers bought tickets for the €13.5 million domestic hit-in-the-making Downfall on its first four days out, Sept. 16–19. Attendance figures were deemed particularly impressive because the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time allows only two screenings per evening.
One enthusiastic Downfall attendee seems to have been former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who told the Bild tabloid that this particular Hitler movie “had to be made and I hope that as many people as possible will see it.” Kohl added that Downfall “is an important film because it gives the younger generation an introduction to how people were very much led astray by National Socialism.”
Some German critics have been considerably less impressed. “The German public will see a film that is far too long, ridiculous and ultimately banal,” affirmed the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “Eichinger and his director have involuntarily turned out the worst comedy of the year.”
Its prior cover story notwithstanding, Der Spiegel was equally dismissive, opining, “One does not need a €13 million film which is about as harmless and superficial as a television soap opera to make the banal observation that humankind can be evil.”
On a dissenting note, Toronto Star film critic Peter Howell selected Downfall as one of his 12 favorite movies at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Hitler movie cast + Der Führer actors
Besides Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Juliane Köhler, Downfall also features Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels, Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, Heino Ferch as Albert Speer, and Thomas Kretschmann as Hermann Fegelein.
Prior to Downfall, Bruno Ganz was most recently seen in a small role as a scientist in another political drama, Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate remake, starring Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and Meryl Streep.
Other actors who have brought Adolf Hitler to movie life include Richard Basehart in Stuart Heisler’s Hitler (1962), Alec Guinness in Ennio De Concini’s Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), Carl Ekberg in several movies (e.g., Man Hunt, Once Upon a Honeymoon), Bobby Watson in a bunch of movies (e.g., The Hitler Gang, A Foreign Affair), in addition to Charles Chaplin as the Hitler-like Tomainian Leader Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940).
Update:More on Hitler movies & movie obsession:
‘The Passion of the Christ’: Mel Gibson controversial Christian movie becomes R-rated DVD hit
From controversial Hitler movie and big-screen hit to controversial Jesus movie and DVD hit: With the not inconsiderable assistance of Christian churches and organizations across the United States, The Passion of the Christ DVD – rated R – has sold 4.1 million copies after only one day in U.S. stores. An impressive figure, though hardly a record-breaking one.
With approximately 8 million copies sold, Pixar’s animated 2003 blockbuster Finding Nemo easily retains the record for one-day DVD sales in the U.S. Sam Raimi’s 2002 blockbuster Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, holds the record for live-action movies: 7 million copies gone from the shelves in one day.
On the big screen, The Passion of the Christ is thus far the second highest-grossing 2004 release at the North American box office. With $370 million to date, Mel Gibson’s Jesus biopic starring Jim Caviezel is trailing only DreamWorks Animation’s kiddie flick Shrek 2, which has earned nearly $437 million. In the voice cast: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and Antonio Banderas.
R-rated & non-English-language bestselling DVD
It should be noted that Finding Nemo and Spider-Man haven’t prevented Fox Home Entertainment from heralding the ultraviolent The Passion of the Christ, with dialogue in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin, as the bestselling R-rated/non-English-language DVD release of all time – at least in the U.S.
As for the controversy, at the time of its theatrical release both The Passion of the Christ and actor-turned-filmmaker Mel Gibson (Best Director Oscar winner for Braveheart, 1995) were criticized by a number of Jewish organizations because of the film’s depiction of Jews as the ones responsible for Jesus’ death. Some feared that the movie might lead to a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
‘The Passion of the Christ’ movie cast
In addition to Jim Caviezel as Jesus, the cast of The Passion of the Christ includes Monica Bellucci as Magdalen, Maia Morgenstern as Mary, Christo Jivkov as John, Francesco De Vito as Peter, Luca Lionello as Judas, and Hristo Shopov (a.k.a. Hristo Naumov Shopov) as Pontius Pilate.
In addition to Mattia Sbragia, Toni Bertorelli, Claudia Gerini, Fabio Sartor, Giacinto Ferro, and Aleksander Mincer (a.k.a. Olek Mincer).
Claude Lelouch offers free tickets following box office debacle
Quite a bit less successful than either Downfall or The Passion of the Christ has been the latest effort by veteran filmmaker Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman, Bolero).
“For years and years the critics have attacked my films, and for years and years the public has come to my rescue,” Lelouch recently said, explaining why he has offered to show his latest film, Le genre humain - 1ère partie: Les Parisiens (“The Human Race - 1st Part: The Parisians”), free of charge.
Massacred by French critics, Les Parisiens lured a mere 16,653 ticket-buyers to the cinéma on opening night, Sept. 15. The film stars Mathilde Seigner (Emmanuelle Seigner’s sister), Maïwenn, and Arielle Dombasle.
Philippe de Broca advice: Don’t do it
“I advise Lelouch against doing this. When a film is a flop, you can’t do much about it,” chimed in Lelouch’s contemporaneous filmmaker Philippe de Broca (That Man from Rio, The Man from Acapulco), speaking from experience.
Almost four decades ago, de Broca held free screenings of his poorly received 1966 fantasy King of Hearts / Le Roi de Coeur – to no avail, despite a cast that included Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Micheline Presle, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Serrault, and Adolfo Celi.
Coincidentally, Lelouch’s biggest international hit, A Man and a Woman / Un homme et une femme, was released the same year as King of Hearts, which, ironically, is now considered a classic in some quarters.
So perhaps there’s hope for Le genre humain - 1ère partie: Les Parisiens sometime in the 2040s.
Leonardo DiCaprio as a 1930s gangster?
Lastly, Michael Mann’s planned Depression Era-set film adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction bestseller Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 will revolve around the transformation of the FBI into the United States’ federal police force – a narrative previously covered in Mervyn LeRoy’s The FBI Story (1959), starring James Stewart and Vera Miles, and based on a book by journalist Don Whitehead.
According to Variety, Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993) has been pegged as one of the film’s stars, though it remains unclear on which side of the legal fence he’ll stand.
Among potential criminals for DiCaprio to play are John Dillinger (Lawrence Tierney in 1945, Warren Oates in 1973), Baby Face Nelson (Mickey Rooney in 1957, C. Thomas Howell in 1996), and Pretty Boy Floyd (John Ericson in 1960, Martin Sheen in 1974 on TV).
As an aside, Public Enemies is unrelated to William A. Wellman’s 1931 gangster classic The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney and Edward Woods as gangsters, and featuring Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, and grapefruit victim Mae Clarke in supporting roles.
Leonardo DiCaprio as 1930s billionaire ladies’ man Howard Hughes
In the film, the Titanic star plays the eccentric billionaire and sometime film producer, alongside Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Kelli Garner as Faith Domergue, Alan Alda as right-wing Republican Senator Owen Brewster, and Alec Baldwin as airline entrepreneur Juan Trippe.
Images of Bruno Ganz in the Hitler movie Downfall: Constantin Film.
Image of Jim Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ: Icon Productions.
Image of Maïwenn in Claude Lelouch’s Le genre humain - 1ère partie: Les Parisiens: Les Films 13.
“Hitler Movie Debate: Should Real-Life Monster Be Depicted as Movie Monster?” last updated in February 2019.