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).
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Update: More on Adolf Hitler movies & Hitler’s movie obsession:
Images of Bruno Ganz in the Hitler movie Downfall: Constantin Film.
“Hitler Movie Debate: Should Most Hated 20th-Century Leader Be Depicted as Your Average Big-Screen Monster?” last updated in October 2019.