By daring to portray Hitler intimately on film, "Der Untergang" reveals the power of fiction to upset moral judgement. Germany still can't take itby Edward Skidelsky / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
Der Untergang, a new film about the last 12 days of the Third Reich, has made cinematic history. For the first time in Germany, Hitler and other leading Nazis have been depicted fictionally. A fierce debate has arisen about the rights and wrongs of such a depiction. Is it another sign of Germany’s much coveted “return to normality”? Or does it instead mark the loss of some kind of historical and moral sensitivity? Will the Third Reich eventually become, like ancient Rome, so much fodder for the entertainment industry?
As so often happens, the film itself has almost disappeared beneath all the polemicising. It is not particularly bad, but neither is it particularly good. Its chief flaw is a slavish subservience to the historical record. Hitler’s conversation, in particular, is lifted directly from eye-witness accounts. The result is an aesthetically stifled production, more “faction” than fiction. Even in its cinematography, Der Untergang lacks boldness. The battle scenes, with their combination of melodrama and hi-tech, hardly venture beyond the conventions of Hollywood epic. Such extraordinary events cry out for a more extraordinary treatment. What, one wonders, would Eisenstein have made of this material?
Der Untergang has, however, one redeeming merit – Bruno Ganz’s superb portrayal of Hitler. The Swiss-born actor has clearly made a thorough study of the old footage, and the result is a miracle of mimicry. The thick, spluttering Austrian accent, the rage, the expressionistic hand gestures that verge on comedy (for English viewers at any rate) – all this is rendered to perfection. And Ganz also convincingly portrays something for which there exists no footage, namely Hitler’s dawning awareness of defeat. He roars and bellows, shifts divisions around the map, but cannot halt the Red army’s advance. His monologues trail off into silence, as if in recognition of their futility. He is a magician reciting spells that have long since lost their magic.
Ganz succeeds, above all, in making real one of the best documented yet strangest facets of Hitler’s character – his likeability. Many visitors to Berchtesgaden reported back on the Führer’s charm; even George Orwell confessed that he found it hard to dislike the man. That someone so wicked could be at the same time so likeable is a mystery, and one which this film, to its credit, does not shirk or gloss. Ganz’s Hitler is kind and attentive, especially to women. With his ministers…