What's so funny?

A controversial new film about Hitler explores his struggle to become an artist. And does it with a straight face. Matthew Sweet wonders why the Führer is so often played for laughs
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How close do you want to get to Adolf Hitler? In a couple of weeks, when Menno Meyjes's Max opens in the UK, you'll be able to see the hairs bristle in his nostrils, the gob pooling at the corners of his mouth, the sweat darkening the fabric of his shirt. Noah Taylor - Geoffrey Rush's younger incarnation in Shine - is the actor going where Alec Guinness, Charlie Chaplin and Anthony Hopkins have gone before. But there's a difference - these actors never had to play the dictator in his days as an art student in Munich, covering his sketch pad with kitschy, sci-fi cityscapes populated by stern, uniformed blondes, goggling with delight at the action of an anti-semitic puppet show, or making disastrous attempts to chat up girls.

And if this intimate portrait of the dictator as a young artist isn't enough for you, then Robert Carlyle is offering an equally proximate alternative. Hitler: The Rise of Evil recently premièred on US television and critics fought to load praise upon him. ("He nails it," declared the New York Post, as "a horrible, dangerous, delusional, incredibly powerful, incredibly angry man who was in the right place at the wrong time.") Max has not been quite so lucky. The film takes its cue from Albert Speer's pronouncement that a proper understanding of Hitler can only be reached through a consideration of his failed career as a painter. John Cusack is the title character, an art dealer who attempts to wean young Adolf away from bierkeller demagoguery and on to Dadaism. Before a shot was in the can, pressure groups were asserting that any film that set out to portray the human - and potentially sympathetic - side of Hitler would be a dangerous folly. After its release, most reversed their position, but the critics were largely baffled by the picture. Max was "a bizarro-world version of High Fidelity in which Jack Black has been replaced by a sullen warmonger with kooky ideas about the purity of blood." Meyjes had turned Hitler into "a buffoon". On screen, however, Hitler has rarely been anything else.

A year or so ago, I bumped into the actor Michael Sheard at a party. You might not know the name, but you'd know the face. As the tyrannical Mr Bronson of Grange Hill, his toupée was discovered wriggling at the bottom of the school swimming-pool. As Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader left his entire body in a comparable state. Most significantly, perhaps, he has played Adolf Hitler more than any other actor. "I've just been asked to play him again," he told me. "And this time it'll be a drag part. The premise of this one is that Hitler did not die in the bunker, but escaped to Britain, where he lived, for many years, disguised as a woman." While I absorbed this information, he voiced his misgivings. "I'm not sure whether I'll do it," he confided. "I think it might be in bad taste." He wrote to the producers, urging them to change the ending, but it seems that his suggestions were dismissed.

Michael Sheard's association with the Führer began when he was cast in Rogue Male (1976) - in which Peter O'Toole attempted to assassinate him, and was so discomfited by the actor's resemblance to the dictator that he refused to sit next to him at lunch. "When I was first offered Rogue Male," recalls Sheard, "I asked my wife, who's Jewish, what she thought of it. And she said, don't be silly, go and do it, you're an actor. I suppose when I play him I metaphorically lock the atrocities in a cupboard - and then you have a fascinating madman to play." His brace of Hitlers are a representative bunch. In The Tomorrow People (1977), he was resuscitated from suspended animation by the British branch of the Hitler Youth - headed by a young Nicholas Lyndhurst. ("Hitler turned out to be a green blob from outer space on that occasion," he recalls.) In The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985), he dodged the assassin's bullet again - stooping down, of course, just as the trigger was pulled. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), he encountered Harrison Ford's archaeologist at a book-burning rally. (Jones, holding his father's diary in his hand, is propelled towards the dictator by the swelling crowd: Hitler thinks that he is being asked for his autograph, and scrawls his signature in the volume.) Last week Sheard was back in uniform, escaping to South America in the Channel 4 documentary Hitler of the Andes. (Although the images were so distorted that I failed entirely to recognise him.)

Sheard has also impersonated Himmler three times, and once took a part in 'Allo 'Allo as an entrant to a Göring lookalike competition, just to complete the set. "But there is a line that you should draw," he argues. "I haven't, in my career so far, turned much down, except [Mrs Meitlemeihr], and the part in War and Remembrance of the guy who actually designed the ovens in Auschwitz. The script had the character saying, 'You put them in the oven here, and here's where the smoke comes out'. It was absolutely unnecessary." Another rejection then springs to mind. "I was offered Hitler again for a film entitled The Sex Life of Adolf Hitler. If that had been approached from a more sensible angle, it could have been interesting. If only to assess the truth of the song that they sang in the war about him only having one. But it was really a porno movie. I couldn't possibly have done it."

The Sex Life of Adolf Hitler, it seems, was never made. Mrs Meitlemeihr, however, was shot last year, with Udo Kier - the veteran of The Story of O (1975) and Andy Warhol's Dracula (1974) - in the title role. A gap in the production schedule of Lars von Trier's Dogville allowed him to take the part. "You see Miss Braun, already dead, and Hitler, shaving off his moustache," Kier tells me, describing the movie. "He leaves Germany, and we cut to 1952, and you see this old woman in a horrible apartment in London, with horrible stockings. It's not camp. Not transvestite-like. He's in disguise. And every day he goes to the post office, waiting for a letter from Argentina, which will contain the tickets that will fly him out of London." It was, he says, his most difficult role - next to the bloated baby succubus into whose skin he crawled for von Trier's TV series The Kingdom (1994). "One wrong movement and I would have killed the whole film. It was very difficult. An extreme experience."

While the Nazis were still in power, most representations of Hitler in Britain and America were comic: newsreel footage of him dancing a few jig steps was looped to ridiculous effect; Carol Reed's comedy-thriller Night Train to Munich (1940) depicted him as a screeching figure, bashing at a map of Europe; Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) portrayed him as a Tasmanian devil of preposterous tics and twitches; the Warner Brothers cartoon Scrap Happy Daffy (1943) saw him dispatching a metal-eating Nazi goat to chew up material collected to aid the allied war effort. These were the cinematic equivalents of the wartime loo-paper with Hitler's face printed on each sheet.

"Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps," wrote Chaplin in his 1964 autobiography, "I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis." Those that followed him had no such qualms. With the possible exceptions of Alec Guinness in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) and Anthony Hopkins in The Bunker (1981) - two glossily middlebrow accounts of the collapse of the dictator's power - post-war Hitlers were scarcely more dignified. He Lives (1967); They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968) and The Boys from Brazil (1978) resurrected him with mad science. Mel Brooks forecast springtime for the Führer in The Producers (1968), and grew the little moustache himself for To Be or Not to Be (1983). Hitler has made a guest appearance on The Simpsons and starred in a short-lived BSkyB sitcom, Heil Honey, I'm Home - which reconstructed his domestic life with Eva Braun in the style of I Love Lucy. Even Alexander Sokurov's Moloch (1999) was, for all its arthouse elegance, a comparably broad exercise in ridicule, while Steven Soderbergh's recent Full Frontal offers British audiences another comic Hitler. In scenes from a dreadful LA fringe play entitled The Sound and the Führer, the lead actor pulls a pager from his pocket and tells his henchmen that he's just received a message from Göbbels. "Gone for haircut," he reads. "What an asshole."

Noah Taylor's Hitler may have a streak of silliness - his distracting resemblance to Ron Mael from Sparks, for example, rather undermines the ferocity of his performance. And it may be somewhat trite and ludicrous to suggest, as Max does, that the Second World War and the Holocaust could have been averted if, in 1918, Hitler had enjoyed a well-reviewed one-man show and a spot of casual sex. But Meyjes deserves credit for attempting to use Hitler as something more sophisticated than a larky music-hall turn or a walk-on bogeyman - if only for the rarity of the exercise. What kind of Hitler offers the most potent warning from history? Noah Taylor, wracked and gangling and spraying spittle as John Cusack looks on in bemusement? Or Freddie Starr, in a swastika armband, doing the light-entertainment goose step?

'Max' is released on 20 June