Does Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 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 various Alien creatures, or as recognizably human – albeit malevolent – beings? That’s the question surrounding a soon-to-be-released Adolf Hitler movie.
According to various reports, the most hated 20th-century beast has undergone a humanizing makeover in director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s German-made 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.
Throughout 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”s Hitler: Humanized monster or monstrously human?
But how persuasive 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, for its part, 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 is a 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.”
‘Worst comedy of the year’
Some German critics, on the other hand, have been quite a bit 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, the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell selected Downfall as one of his 12 favorite movies at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Downfall is ‘Hitler movie rule’ exception
Besides Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Juliane Köhler, Downfall features Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels, Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, Heino Ferch as Albert Speer, and Thomas Kretschmann as Hermann Fegelein.
Also worth noting, Adolf Hitler has been portrayed by a variety of actors in the last six decades or so, usually in supporting roles or in minor/little-seen films. Below are a few notable Hitlers:
- Carl Ekberg in Man Hunt (1941), Citizen Kane (1941), The Wife Takes a Flyer (1941), Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), and What Did You Do in the War Daddy? (1966).
- Bobby Watson in Hitler – Dead or Alive (1942), Nazty Nuisance (1943), The Hitler Gang (1944), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), A Foreign Affair (1948), The Story of Mankind (1957), On the Double (1961), and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962).
- Richard Basehart in Stuart Heisler’s Hitler (1962).
- Alec Guinness in Ennio De Concini’s Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973).
- Anthony Hopkins in George Schaefer’s The Bunker (1981), a made-for-TV effort covering some of the same ground as Downfall.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s big-budget (by German standards), big-screen historical drama, with Adolf Hitler at its center, is thus an exception to the rule. That helps to explain why this latest Hitler movie has created such a stir in its native Germany.
Another equally controversial exception is Charles Chaplin’s political satire The Great Dictator (1940), in which the filmmaker-star plays the Hitler-like Tomainian Leader Adenoid Hynkel.
Bruno Ganz: Long & prestigious international career
In movies since the early 1960s (more steadily since the mid-1970s), Bruno Ganz has been seen in about 50 features. Notable titles include:
- Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), Wings of Desire (1987), and Faraway So Close! (1993).
- Eric Rohmer’s The Marquise of O (1976), which earned Ganz a Best Actor German Film Award.
- Franklin J. Schaffner’s The Boys from Brazil (1978).
- Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).
- Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Children of Nature (1991).
- Silvio Soldini’s Bread and Tulips (2000), which earned Ganz a Best European Actor nomination.
Bruno Ganz was most recently seen in a small role as a scientist in Jonathan Demme’s U.S.-made political drama The Manchurian Candidate, a remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic. Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and Meryl Streep star.
“Hitler Movie Debate” endnotes
Images of Bruno Ganz in the Hitler movie Downfall: Constantin Film.
“Hitler Movie Debate: How to Portray Most Hated 20th-Century Leader?” last updated in September 2021.