the dangers of portraying hitler
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The dangers of portraying Hitler
Downfall film director said that "evil comes with a smiling face" as Bruno Ganz talks about the problems of playing Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in his final days
BySheila Johnston10:03AM BST 30 Apr 2015On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler shot himself dead in his underground bunker beneath the Chancellery in Berlin. Eva Braun, whom he had married the previous day, died beside him by taking a cyanide pill. In this article, first published in 2005, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, the man behind the controversial film about Hitler called Downfall talked about the dangers of portraying him as a human being"Gentlemen," declared Joseph Goebbels in the final days of the Berlin bunker, "a hundred years on, a splendid colour film will be shown about these terrible times we're living through." The situation might seem desperate now, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda explained, but everyone just needed to hold out a little longer. Because, a century on, audiences would whoop and whistle when they saw their heroes on the silver screen.Two weeks later, it was over. Hitler and his new wife, Eva Braun, were dead and Goebbels's own wife, Magda, had poisoned their six apple-cheeked children rather than watch them grow up in a world without National Socialism.Still, at least the film, called Downfall, has arrived, a full four decades ahead of Goebbels's schedule. It is, however, doubtful whether audiences will whoop and whistle at the sight of it.It shows the Third Reich crumbling amid the bang of bombs and the whimper of recrimination. The bunker's inmates quarrel and party in a grisly dance of death, while Hitler appears as a quivering wreck, one minute blubbering in self-pity, the next mustering the energy to rant hatefully about the Final Solution or tucking into ravioli. But in Germany the debate has raged over whether it is permissible to portray Hitler as a human being at all.That honour in Downfall belongs to the distinguished Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, possessor of the mystical Iffland Ring, which for 200 years has been awarded to the most important German-speaking actor of each generation.Eva Braun (Juliane Koehler, left), Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz, middle) and Albert Speer (Heino Ferch) in DownfallGanz says that, of course he shuddered, just as anyone else would, at the role. "I asked people I've known a long time and whom I trust, and they all advised me against it," he told the Sddeutsche Zeitung. "We've internalised a kind of taboo against playing him."He was encouraged by the wealth of source material: a rare tape-recording of Hitler speaking in his normal, non-demagogic voice and the many personal memoirs by the people around him. They provided minute insights into how Hitler walked, talked and cleared his throat. These, Ganz said, enabled him not to brood too long on the man's deadly Weltanschauung but to concentrate instead on the way he held his hands.But, Ganz also adds, "people around me claim that, while making the film, I talked a lot about Hitler, and not always with the proper, politically correct distance". And, when he said that he was not ashamed to arouse pity for Hitler "for fractions of seconds", his cautious confession sent shock waves rippling through the nation.-the 23 best war moviesApart from GW Pabst's 1955 film The Last Ten Days, the only previous German attempt to show the Fhrer on screen has been Hans Juergen Syberberg's eccentric six-hour epic, Hitler, A Film From Germany, made in 1977. Then, Syberberg agonised over how, or even whether, to depict his protagonist. In the end,Hitler was played by different actors, performed by puppets and even voiced by a ventriloquist's doll. It was a low-budget, high-camp, extremely polemical tour through the German psyche and the reasons for Hitler's hold over it.Downfall is nothing like that. A relatively lavish 10 million production with a large cast, it's based on historical sources: Inside Hitler's Bunker, by the scholar Joachim Fest, and Until the Final Hour, by Traudl Junge, Hitler's private secretary. This time the aim, according to Bernd Eichinger, who produced both it and Syberberg's film, is to "grip the viewer, without preaching at him".Syberberg supports Downfall. He feels the time is now right to paint a realistic portrait of Hitler. Not so another member of this older generation of German film-makers. In a passionate, very detailed review in Die Zeit, Wim Wenders wrote that he had spent a sleepless night after seeing Downfall. On a second viewing, he detected its absence of any strong point of view about Hitler which, in the end, made him harmless.Downfall was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language FilmWenders compared Downfall unfavourably with Resident Evil, a Hollywood potboiler about flesh-eating zombies. There, at least, you knew who the baddies were."Of course the film has a point of view," counters Dr Fest. "Hitler was a master of that smooth Viennese charm, especially towards women. But just because he was sometimes nice to his secretary doesn't mean he was a humane person. To conclude that is simply silly. Wim Wenders would have liked to make a film that attracted two million viewers. Downfall was seen by five million Germans."Many American critics, on the other hand, were more concerned by the film's sympathetic take on some of the secondary characters. "Next to the Goebbelses and to Hitler, many of the others don't look too bad," objected a typical review in The New York Times. "The movie is sending its domestic audience the soothing message that ordinary Germans were above all the victims of Nazism."The 10 most controversial films in cinemaOlivier Hirschbiegel, the director of Downfall, says:"They just got it wrong. Bad people do not walk around with claws like vicious monsters, even though it might be comforting to think so. Everyone intelligent knows that evil comes along with a smiling face."He has dealt before with man's inhumanity to man in an earlier film - The Experiment, based on an experiment in which students role-played guards and prisoners. Things quickly turned nasty and the two-week test was terminated after six days."Evil seems to be the most powerful force at work in the world," says Hirschbiegel, who found the shoot of Downfall deeply depressing. "You have to protect your soul. When I got home each day, I took a long shower and listened to Johann Sebastian Bach, and that helped."On one point, all agree: Hitler himself remains an enigma. Hirschbiegel quotes Sebastian Haffner's book, The Meaning of Hitler. "He came to the conclusion that Hitler was like a shell. He had lots of ways of seducing people; even his frequent self-pity was a weapon to make people respond. But inside this shell you would find nothing. No warmth, no heart, no passion for anything, except an enormous will for destruction."