Making Hitler Human

Times Staff Writer

Adolf Hitler flickers on old newsreels, a grainy ghost of spastic gesture and rousing speech. Arm slanted skyward, face drenched in sweat, he seems one-dimensional yet beyond comprehension.

Those sinister images will never fade, but today a new Hitler lurks.

He is in color. He speaks in a mannered voice. He attends parties lighted by chandelier. He pinches the cheeks of little boys, walks with friends through snowy forests. He jokes. And for a fleeting moment, when his scowling and ranting calm, he seems fragile as he conceals a hand shaking from what is believed to have been Parkinson’s disease.


Two German directors are for the first time giving this nation a more human cinematic portrait of the Fuehrer. Once relegated to cameo appearances or skulking in the wings, the Hitler of German film is stepping center stage.

Considered by some critics risky artistic explorations of evil that could instigate right-wing fascination, the movies are attempts to pierce the unfathomable. Imbuing the author of “Mein Kampf” with the tics and foibles of humanity, the directors say, makes him more frightening, his acts more despicable.

“Hitler was a genius seducer, so you have to show that he was charming. You have to show him as a human being,” said Heinrich Breloer, director of “The Devil’s Architect,” one of the films. “But he is also ruthless, a killer with the eyes of a shark. You have to depict all his nuances. We have to look at the man behind the newsreel images.”

The new movies coincide with the recent trend of reexamining the Holocaust and a widening revisionist scholarship that is enabling Germans to portray themselves as victims of a madman who were forced to endure the destruction wrought by Allied bombing.

Hitler has been the insect on the pin of German imagination since World War II. Nearly every night, German television airs footage of the period from the days of Hitler’s ascension to the ruins of Hamburg and Dresden -- reminders meant to help prevent a repeat of the atrocities. Today, Germany is the world’s third-largest economy and a prominent voice for democracy and human rights. The age of penance and absolution is over, according to young Germans who are more preoccupied with globalization than the horrors of the past.

“The younger generation doesn’t feel it’s part of those crimes anymore,” said Rainer Rother, director of the film archives at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. “There’s no family guilt. It’s history. The main thing for today’s young Germans is not accusation, like it was for the young generation of the 1960s. Today’s youth are more interested in, ‘How did it happen, and what made Hitler and the others tick?’ ”

The specter of Hitler is more difficult for older generations to come to terms with. Jewish groups are protesting the Sept. 22 opening of the art collection of Friedrich Christian Flick, the grandson of one of Hitler’s military contractors, who amassed a fortune using slave labor. Last year, Degussa, a company that manufactured poison for concentration camps, ignited a round of soul-searching over its contract to supply an anti-graffiti coating for Berlin’s new Holocaust memorial.

The Fuehrer still haunts. Studies of him have veered from caricature to the absurd to guilt-inspired documentaries and insightful biographies. Fleshing Hitler out as a fully formed character, wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper, “prompts the question whether one should be allowed to feel sympathy” for a leader whose warped ambitions led to the deaths of 50 million people.

“The time is ripe for such a film,” Bernd Eichinger, the 55-year-old producer and screenwriter of “Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich,” said at a recent news conference. “It’s important not just to shed light on one’s own history superficially, but rather to tell it from within.... If you had an overall sympathy for Hitler, then the film has failed in its intention. But to show sympathy in certain moments is, I believe, quite fine.”

Unmasking the Hitler of 1930s propaganda films, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” would be for many a chance to assess how the nation that created Beethoven also spawned the Final Solution.

“What is Germany?” asked Breloer, 62, an archival detective with a graying mustache whose film about Hitler’s armaments minister, Albert Speer, is a blend of documentary footage and meticulously re-imagined scenes. “I love the Germany of Goethe and Thomas Mann. But the biggest riddle of my life is how Hitler happened. How could a brutal gang win this country? They overran it. They overwhelmed it. What was in the hearts of our fathers and grandfathers?”

“The Devil’s Architect,” scheduled to air on German television in May, examines Speer and his relationship with Hitler. Intelligent and politically clever, Speer was tried at Nuremberg in 1946 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“Downfall,” opening Thursday in theaters nationwide, captures the last moments of the war as Soviet troops stormed Berlin and the Fuehrer hid in an underground bunker, where he committed suicide with his bride, Eva Braun, on April 30, 1945.

Germans have seen dramatic re-creations of these characters before, notably in American and British films. Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins have both played Hitler. The first noteworthy German-produced feature to look at him was Hans-Juergen Syberberg’s “Confessions of Winifred Wagner.” But the new movies by Breloer and Eichinger delve more deeply into the lives, idiosyncrasies and pathologies of the Fuehrer and his cronies.

In Eichinger’s film, Hitler is mean, headstrong and harsh. He stews in a claustrophobic catacomb with Braun, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels and Goebbels’ wife, Magda, and their six children, all of whom will die.

Hitler hides his jittery hand as he paces and sweats. His uniform is damp; a critic wrote that one could almost smell his nervous breath. His moods skitter -- at times he acts like a jovial uncle, at others he’s a cornered lunatic awaiting airplanes that never arrive.

In one bizarre scene taken from the real event, Hitler dictates his will to his secretary, Traudl Junge. He leaves, and moments later an agitated Goebbels enters the room and asks Junge to record his will. She tells him she’s busy doing the Fuehrer’s.

There is an eerie humanness to Hitler’s demise as above ground the battle for Berlin unfolds. “When the war is lost, it doesn’t matter at all if the German people are doomed as well,” the Fuehrer says quietly. “I wouldn’t cry a single tear about that because they wouldn’t deserve anything else.” He disappears into a room and closes the door. Seconds pass. There is a bang.

“ ‘Downfall’ will be a sensation,” the newsmagazine Der Spiegel wrote recently in an article that included graphics of Hitler’s bunker 15 feet below the streets of Berlin. “Eichinger succeeded in something no one was able to achieve before him. He gave the absurd drama in the concrete tomb a real face.”

Jens Jessen, a film critic for Die Zeit, was less impressed.

“The actor [Bruno Ganz] speaks like Hitler. He looks like Hitler and he moves like Hitler from the old newsreels. There’s never been more Hitler in a movie theater,” Jessen wrote. “But will you recognize Hitler? ... How we would imagine Hitler among us today is not shown. Hitler remains an ungraspable monster whose authority and attraction is not explained by any reciprocal sympathy. The film doesn’t humanize Hitler ... it just triggers astonishment. The taboo has been broken, but for what purpose?”

The frustration of moving beyond the tug of history often leads to perplexing debate in a nation that has been reunified only since 1989. Six months ago, politicians and foundations chastised Hans Ottomeyer, director of the German Historical Museum, for proposing an exhibition on Hitler and the Nazi years. It would have followed the museum’s successful show about World War I.

“The idea was heavily refused,” Ottomeyer said. “People were afraid it could lead to possible Nazi worship and dangerous discussion. Politicians told me, ‘Why an exhibition about that monster?’ I was told: ‘The time isn’t right. Don’t touch that subject.’ Now, half a year later, these films are coming out.”

He added: “Germany is prepared to take a cold look at this monster. Before, Hitler was too close in time, too close in guilt and too close in pain.”

Breloer, a mischievous man tinkering with the past in his attic office, is one of Germany’s most respected directors and has spent years studying Hitler, Speer and the Third Reich. He has read more than 300 books on the subjects, he said, and riffled through thousands of pages of German and U.S. archives.

He’s especially fascinated with Speer, who before and during the Nuremberg trials was the touchstone for the Allies in understanding Hitler’s regime. The Fuehrer’s beloved architect before becoming his armaments minister, Speer accepted guilt for war crimes but denied being an accomplice to the Holocaust. Some Germans believed him; others, such as Breloer, contend he was a master opportunist who manipulated the West while assuaging his own conscience. Speer was released from prison in 1966 and died in 1981.

“Speer is very tricky,” Breloer said, pushing up the butterscotch-colored rims of his glasses. “He’s like a caterpillar who turns into a butterfly in Nuremberg. He was able to reinvent himself after the war. To understand the relationship between Hitler and Speer, you must think in Freudian categories. There was a little homoeroticism, and Hitler always wanted to be an architect, but it was Speer who had the talent.

“In this young man, Hitler saw his heritage. Speer felt Hitler loved him, and often in those relationships, the loved one has more power.”

Hitler’s voice has echoed through the decades in roaring speeches and through crackling loudspeakers at Nazi rallies. But Breloer discovered a 1942 tape of Hitler made by a Finnish radio technician. It is believed to be the only recording of Hitler speaking in normal tones, and it became a model for the mannerisms and rhythms of the Fuehrer as played by Austrian actor Tobias Moretti.

“What was his speech?” Breloer asked. “What did he sound like? Hitler repeated sentences and phrases, often coming back to the same ideas. I imagined what it would be like to be with this character for two to three hours.”

Breloer reached for a folder on his desk. From it, he pulled still photographs from the filming of “The Devil’s Architect.” The swastikas, the cut of the coats, Hitler’s mustache, the gleam off the brim of patent-leather hats -- all seemed real, immediate, as if lifted from yesterday’s newspaper. Breloer leaned forward, the early-evening sun shining through his wineglass, the sounds of giggling children rising from the street below.

“I have a special responsibility to look at this history,” he said. “My father and my mother didn’t do it. They hauled away the rubble and rebuilt the country after the war. They didn’t want to contemplate this history. Mine is the first generation after that with the responsibility to research. So you take all these ingredients and go back into the time machine.”