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Hitler Movie Debate: How to Portray Most Hated 20th-Century Leader?

Hitler movie Downfall Bruno GanzHitler movie Downfall, with Bruno Ganz: How should Nazi Germany’s hated leader be portrayed on screen?
  • Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Adolf Hitler movie Downfall has led to a political/philosophical debate: Should modern history’s most hated man be depicted as a movie monster or as a complex human being?

Does Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Adolf Hitler movie Downfall humanize Nazi Germany’s monstrous Führer? And is that bad?

On the big screen, 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 philosophical 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), his wife-to-be Eva Braun (Juliane Köhler), and his German shepherd Blondi.

‘Chilling’ Bruno Ganz

But how persuasive is Bruno Ganz’s “humanized” Hitler?

As per Joachim Fest, a “historical consultant” during the production of Downfall, 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 – in which a madman is seen being kind to both his secretary and his dog – will be eagerly embraced by neo-Nazis.

Hitler’s bunker gets a face

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. Besides Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Juliane Köhler, the WWII drama features Ulrich Matthes as Joseph Goebbels, Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, Heino Ferch as Albert Speer, and Thomas Kretschmann as Hermann Fegelein.

Downfall will have its world premiere on Sept. 9 in Germany; it opens commercially the following week. Its international premiere will take place on Sept. 14 at the Toronto Film Festival.


“Hitler Movie Debate” endnotes

Bruno Ganz Downfall movie image: Constantin Film.

“Hitler Movie Debate: How to Portray Most Hated 20th-Century Leader?” last updated in November 2022.

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1 comment

Mike Peterson -

I’ve been looking for a movie; I presume “Faces in the Mirror…” but have the feeling that “Downfall” may be the ticket, instead: Adolf Hitler is facing his inevitable destruction in the Reich bunker, and it goes on, after the inevitable destruction.

Instead, he is facing a post-apocolyptic, post after-death in a kind of nether world in which things tend to unravel, unnaturally, in a kind of dream sequence which goes more and more “unnatural” as time goes by. Goering, Himmler and Hess all fall away (as well as Eva Braun) and he, and only he, is left alone. I find it to be very haunting, as well as very looooong!

Could I possibly be “barking up” the RIGHT tree?

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