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Hitler film spawns debate in Germany
Updated: 2004-09-10 08:32

A chillingly frank screen portrayal of Adolf Hitler's final hours in his Berlin bunker has spawned a national debate over whether Germans are prepared to view the Nazi dictator as a tragic human being rather than as a monster.

German actor Bruno Ganz in probably the most controversial role of his life: Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. [DPA]
In a country where the display of Nazi emblems is banned, Germans are long accustomed to being reminded by television and the movies that Hitler was the 20th Century's ultimate war criminal. And in a country where the spectre of neo-Nazism is ever-present, anything less than the damning portrayal of Hitler in books, on TV or in movies is suspected of playing to radical rightwing sentiments.

Now, for the first time, Germany's best-known film producer has teamed up with the country's best-known 20th Century historian and a top-notch cast to risk resurrecting Hitler as never before. Veteran "New Wave" actor Bruno Ganz stars as Hitler in producer Bernd Eichinger's film, made with the scholarly assistance of award-winning German historian Joachim Fest.

Movie audiences will be taken inside the bunker for an eye-witness look at Hitler's final days in a biopic entitled "Der Untergang - Hitler Und Das Ende Des Dritten Reiches", which means Downfall - Hitler And The End of The Third Reich. "Ganz iS Hitler," Fest said at a media screening of the US$15 million film, which is scheduled for nationwide release on September 16. "I took one look at him in full makeup and a chill ran down my spin," said Fest, author of major Hitler biographies. "Then he opened his mouth and sounded just like Hitler. Every nuance is there. It is a chillingly accurate portrayal, the likes of which I have never seen before on the big screen."

Ganz is best known for his films with Wim Wenders, "The American Friend" (1977) and "Wings of Desire" (1988), playing an angel who wants to be human. "Viewing the finished film," Ganz told reporters, "I realize there are moments in it when the audience might feel a bit sorry for Hitler, might empathize with him slightly. But those moments are few and far between, and I'm not ashamed of my portrayal. I just played the character as he was - self-pitying and pathetic."

A veteran stage actor, 63-year-old Ganz got his major film breakthrough in Eric Rohmer's "The Marquise of O" (1976), which was followed by Werner Herzog's atmospheric "Nosferatu the Vampire" (1979) and Volker Schlondorff's "Circle of Deceit." (1981) He also appeared in "The Boys From Brazil" (1978) as a demented Nazi scientist.

Ganz had qualms about playing Hitler but agreed to an audition in costume with full makeup. "We were all shocked when, after half an hour in the make-up chair, Bruno Ganz came out looking and talking just like Hitler," said Eichinger. "That's when I figured I might as well go through with it," Ganz said.

In supporting roles are Juliane Koehler as Eva Braun, Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels, Ulrich Noethen as Heinrich Himmler and Alexandra Maria Lara as stenographer Traudl Junge.

Eichinger said the portrayal is entirely based on historical fact. "I sent my script to Herr Fest and if he had rejected it, my project would have immediately disappeared into a drawer," he said.

Fest, author of a best-selling biography of Hitler and former publisher of one of Germany's most prestigious daily newspapers, Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, said he had long been puzzled as to why no other historian had taken up the last-days topic, "so I decided to do it myself."

Eichinger also drew upon the memoirs of the late Traudl Junge, Hitler's last stenographer, who published her memoirs in late 2002 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her book, published only days before she died, contains hitherto unknown insights into life in the bunker in those fateful final days in the spring of 1945.

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