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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
'Human' Hitler disturbs Germans

By Ray Furlong
BBC Berlin correspondent

Bruno Ganz as Hitler - copyright Constantin Films
Adolf Hitler is played by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz
Adolf Hitler shuffles around the tightly-packed briefing room, screaming at his generals that they are cowards, traitors, and scum.

"You studied for years at military academy - just to learn how to hold a knife and fork!" he rages, his hand shaking with Parkinson's disease.

This scene from The Downfall, the new German film on Hitler's last days in the bunker, shows Hitler as one might expect him.

But the film, on show across Germany from Thursday, has sparked controversy by also presenting another view of Hitler - a human one.

We see him showing tenderness to his secretary, and receiving a chocolate birthday cake from his mistress, and later wife, Eva Braun.

There's an animal in all of us - that's the message of the movie
Bernd Eichinger, screenplay writer
"He is a human being, not a psychopath. It is true that he was charming. He had his soft spots," said screenplay writer Bernd Eichinger.

"This is what makes the whole thing so dangerous, because there's an animal in all of us - that's the message of the movie," he added.


It is a message that has not gone down well with some sections of the German press.

"Should a monster be portrayed as a human being?" asked the tabloid newspaper Bild recently.

The rest of the media has been eagerly discussing the same question for weeks now, long before the film was even premiered.

"There is for instance one moment where we see Hitler cry, but I think if you want to have an intelligent film on his last days you shouldn't do it like that," said Cristina Nord, a culture critic for the Tageszeitung newspaper.

"It's important to make films about perpetrators, to show how they think. But seeing Hitler cry doesn't make me know what was going on there in the last days of the Third Reich," she added.

Private side

Made at a cost of 13.5m euros ($16.4m), The Downfall is one of the most expensive German films for years.

It juxtaposes the battle for Berlin with the claustrophobic world of the bunker. But it is the portrayal of Hitler that has received most attention.

I cannot only hate this person
Bruno Ganz

At the press launch, Swiss actor Bruno Ganz set the tone when he said that he needed to feel some compassion for Hitler - for fractions of a second, as he put it - in order to play him.

"I cannot only hate this person," he said.

But for all the media debate - and a huge amount of hype - it is not the first time Hitler's last days have been dramatised in a German film.

In 1955 Georg Wilhelm Papst's film The Last Act was based on a screenplay by Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front.

Remarque saw it as a way of reviving memories. Concerned about the creeping rehabilitation of Nazi functionaries in western Germany, he followed it up a year later with the essay Be Vigilant in the London Evening News.

Juliane Kohler and Bruno Ganz - copyright Constantin Films
Juliane Koehler played Hitler's wife Eva Braun

Other films followed. A 1970s film mixed fact and drama by including recorded comments from one of Hitler's servants.

But many critics argue The Downfall goes a step further in showing Hitler's private side.

Film historian Gertrud Koch believes it is a logical consequence of new documentaries in recent years that used previously unseen home movies of Hitler.

"There was a famous series where all these private films done by Eva Braun and the whole crew around Hitler were shown," she said.

"I think this tendency to see Hitler more like a kind of private person was created through this historical footage," he said.

Poisoned children

One of the most harrowing scenes from The Downfall is where the wife of prominent Nazi Joseph Goebbels, Magda, poisons her own children. She is convinced there can be no future after National Socialism.

"Drink, drink!" she shouts, forcing her screaming child to take "medicine".

But we do not see Hitler's suicide. The film is supposed to be as authentic as possible, and Hitler killed himself alone in his room with Eva Braun.

The Downfall brings Hitler closer to us, but there are limits.

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