Film Studies: In the bunker: cinema's long struggle with the image of Hitler

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The consternation in Germany over the new film Downfall, and whether that excellent, modest actor Bruno Ganz has made a human being of Hitler, may be more interesting than the picture itself. I suppose the German anxiety concerns the way in which this Hitler is not just an immense and inhuman incarnation of evil. But wouldn't the man and his legacy be easier for history's contemplation if, indeed, Satan had sent his only beloved son down to Earth to set an example? Explain Adolf that way and no one else gets blamed. Accept that he was a regular human being - subject to illness, mood swings, his own mistakes and his driving ego - and then we have to allow for a real, extensive context, one in which the guilt or the responsibility can be shared around. After all, once upon a time, people voted for Adolf Hitler.

I saw Downfall in San Francisco, not long after its initial impact in Germany, at a screening hosted by the Goethe Institute, with Bruno Ganz on stage after the screening. The Castro theatre was packed and that made for an appropriate hellish heat inside. The audience must have included many Germans. And when the diffident Ganz appeared, he got a standing ovation - as much out of relief at seeing a survivor of the Fuhrer as in admiration for his performance. Ian Kershaw - a notable Hitler historian - remarked recently that part of Ganz's achievement was in getting the voice uncannily right. In San Francisco, the actor described how he had studied medical records (to get the Parkinson's symptoms) and radio broadcasts to convey the Austrian accent, the swoops from self-pity to tantrum, and the quiet, "ordinary" voice in the leader. Ganz added, with a shy smile, that he had been pleased to note how, after the most intense day's work in the Bunker, he was able to hang Adolf up on a hook in his dressing room and enjoy dinner. This was the Ganz touch - the gentle assertion that gentleness can be victorious.

Downfall is not inspired or beautiful - but could we bear it if it was? It's a film that does its duty, and if anyone is truly shocked by the human detail in Ganz's performance, I would suggest that the calm wickedness in Corinna Harfouch's Magda Goebbels is antidote enough. The matter-of-fact way in which she poisons her children and then plays patience is enough to give the whole genre of Horror reason to pause. True horror is in ordinariness, and the brilliance of the actress's work in that scene is the way she suggests her own delusion of love carrying her forward. It is one of the great displays of ordinary madness in the cinema. Why "ordinary madness"? Because the lurid, theatrical kind is so often the beginnings of an excuse. What Harfouch shows is that the lucid can be deranged in an everyday manner.

I share Ian Kershaw's opinion that Downfall does not tell us much new about Hitler. There is a German film (despite claims that this is the first German-made Hitler film), Der Letze Akt, made in 1955 by GW Pabst, in which Albin Skoda played Hitler. In fact, that is the film that persuaded Ganz that Downfall could and should be done. (There is also Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's extraordinary Our Hitler, 1980 - a filmed circus show, far more searching and dark-humoured than most Germans were ready for.)

There have been several biopics with starry actors from outside Germany. Alec Guinness gave it a shot in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), when the actor's unique reticence or aloofness seemed innately at odds with the compulsively outbursting Fuhrer - and so the act was more glaring. Anthony Hopkins won an Emmy doing The Bunker on television - Piper Laurie was Magda Goebbels in that one, and there's something eerily incongruous in that casting line. Robert Carlyle played the dread moustache in Hitler: The Rise of Evil, while in Max, writer-director Menno Meyjes speculated over what might have changed in young Adolf's destiny if his career as a painter had found more success.

Max didn't quite work, though a lot of that may have to do with sheer novelty and our unease about where we were meant to stand. Dramatically, and historically, I think there is far more potential in the oblique portrayal of Hitler than even Ganz's "flawless" impersonation. The most interesting structural device in Downfall is the use of the young secretary who comes to work 10 days before the end, and is able to walk away at the end, hardly noticed by the arriving Russian soldiers.

This character is somewhat contrived. It takes a lot to think that the girl would have gone to work - or been able to get to the bunker - looking quite so pretty, open and naïve. In fact, the character is based on Traudl Junge, the subject of a fine documentary, Blind Spot (2002), in which, near death, the older woman described the three years in which she was a secretary to Hitler and now excoriates herself for innocence and stupidity.

Hitler himself, head on, torn between cyanide and a last insane plan of attack, is a cliché and a dead end. Downfall may serve the purpose of breaking the German audience's dread of such a film - while deterring other actors from competing with Ganz. But in no way am I calling for a moratorium on films about Nazism. The detailed events of the holocaust are almost helplessly indecent when recreated for fiction, but how the mind worked as it made its gradual shift from ordinary German to devoted fascist, that is an essential subject.

And it leads to this conclusion: that there have been a number of remarkable films made about people - common or celebrities - who were in awe of that voice, whether heard over the radio or at the dinner table. Many are as harrowing as you might expect, but not all - do not forget the drab Adolf who appears briefly in Lubitsch's great To Be Or Not To Be, a film that stands up for the difficulty of doing Hamlet or staying faithful even as jackboots are heard approaching. Nor should we forget Chaplin's The Great Dictator which - among other things - is one great celebrity's pained response to a rival for public affection.

And don't ban Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will - which is, alas, beautiful and even a great movie, as well as a close-up of the love affair between a dictator and the crowds. Yes, it would have been so much more useful if people had grasped that danger in the Thirties, but that's no reason to neglect its dynamic now. And if you want the best film about Nazism, and on the way ordinary men can sit at a table and agree to the unthinkable, then see Frank Pierson's Conspiracy, made for television in 2003, about the Wannsee conference, where Kenneth Branagh's Heydrich is an echo of Hitler's roar.

'Downfall' is out on Friday