Blow out candles, brains

Fuhrerbunker birthday bash beginning of end

Published: Apr 20 2014, 01:01:am

May 21, 1973  
HITLER: THE LAST TEN DAYS. Co-written by Maria Pia Fusco, Ivan Moffat and Wolfgang Reinhardt, based on Gerhardt Boldt's memoir Hitler's Last Days: An Eye-witness Account. Music by Mischa Spoliansky. Co-written and directed by Ennio De Concini. Running time: 108 minutes. General entertainment.
IN LATE APRIL, 1945, the real estate under the control of Germany's 1,000-year Reich had shrunk to a crumbling perimeter around the Berlin Chancellery. Below it, protected by 18 metres of steel-reinforced concrete, the delusional Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was planning the construction of a lavish cultural capital in the already Allied-occupied city of Linz.
    As he contemplated the models of spires, arches and opera houses, Eva Braun, his mistress through the years of his glory, stood with him. At one point, according to the researchers who authenticated the script of Hitler: Last Ten Days, she said: "What a pity for the world that you didn't devote your life to art."
    Ever fascinating are the what-might-have-beens of history.
    Today, [1973] interest in the life of the Austrian-born dictator is on the rise. Eva, supposedly, thought her Adolf a great artist. Norman Spinrad, a current science-fiction author with, perhaps, a bit more perception, thinks he might have been a successful pulp writer.   
    In his tongue-in-cheek novel, The Iron Dream (1972), Spinrad creates an alternate-history Hitler who, as a young man, "dabbled briefly in radical politics in Munich, before emigrating to New York in 1919." In the U.S., Spinrad's Hitler becomes a magazine illustrator, a science-fiction fan and, ultimately, a famous writer of futuristic romances.
    The Iron Dream is offered as a reprint of Hitler's Hugo Award-winning novel, Lord of the Swastika, a fantasy of the distant future, when a single man stands "between the remnants of true humanity and annihilation at the hands of of the totally evil Dominators, and the mindless mutant hordes they completely control."
    Spinrad's Hitler was "a popular figure at SF conventions, widely known in fandom as a wit and nonstop raconteur." Though he died in 1953, he became the object of posthumous cult adoration.
    Spinrad's character is less fantastic than the truth, a figure who, as he comes into historical perspective, is less an object of revulsion and more one of fascination. Like Napoleon, the real Hitler affected the lives of millions, and permanently scarred the face of history. To those who suffered, and to those who continue to suffer, he was no joke.
    Nevertheless, in close-up, his existence, his power and his evil influence do seem like some grim cosmic jest. Remarkably, both views, the deadly serious and bleakly ludicrous, have found their way into Hitler: The Last 10 Days.
        The movie, a British-Italian co-production, is not meant to be funny. Not in any way. But a kind of unintentional laughter is difficult to supress when the Fuhrer and his bunkermates sit down in a warm, familial group to enthuse over their individual suicide plans.
    Scripted by Ennio de Concini, Maria Pia Fusco (the team that penned one of last year's worst films, the Richard Burton vehicle Bluebeard) and Wolfgang Reinhardt, the film has a tone only slightly more subtle than that of a comic book.
    It was, however, filmed in England, which means that the picture was made with some care, and that sense of unflinching professional pride that British crews manage to lavish on projects as diverse as Young Winston and Tales from the Crypt (both 1972).
    ln this case, the working title might well have been Tales from the Fuhrerbunker. Almost all of the action of the film takes place within that world beneath the earth. There, Hitler and his entourage are playing out the last act of their incredible tragi-fantasy.
    The story begins on April 20, the Fuhrer's 56th birthday. All is far from well. Like his Reich, Hitler (Alec Guinness) is rapidly deteriorating. His health is shattered, the result of his narrow escape from attempted assassination by members of his general staff.
    His mind is in chaos, a combination of despair and justified paranoia. In his more lucid moments, he knows that the war is lost.
    Into this world comes Hauptmann Hoffman (Simon Ward), a young officer who burns to serve his fuhrer. He expects to bask in historical glory, but instead finds a sick little man feeding on sour dreams, and a high command incapable of command.
    Through his eyes, we see the two kinds of people upon whose shoulders Hitler rode to power. On one hand are the fanatics, who shared his fantasies, while on the other are the opportunists, who shared his lust for power. A sprinkling of both groups now waits listlessly, committed to sharing his fate, and the "Viking funeral" he decrees for Germany.
    When the film was originally announced, and Alec Guinness cast in the title role, hardly anyone expected the versatile performer to give less than a perfect performance. Nor does he. He slips into the German dictator's persona, his style and manner, as easily as he does his moustache and uniform.
    He is surrounded by an international cast, all of whom take their parts seriously, and act out the screenplay's operatic excesses with incredible restraint. It's too bad the same can't be said for director Ennio De Concini's overall production.
    In one sense, it manages to be successful. As might be expected, only old newsreels were available for the scenes of Berlin under siege. His movie makes this a virtue, going so far as to film all of its own exteriors in a sepia tint. In this way, it throws the events of the outside world into contrast with the Technicolor fantasyland of the Fuhrerbunker.
   Unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn't leave well enough alone. Having developed the gimmick, they feel called upon to use it at every turn, tossing in exterior footage as a kind of running commentary on the events within their main bomb-shelter set.
    At one point, for example, Hitler tells his staff portentously "I cannot be wrong. Everything I do and everything I say is History!" Immediately, a rust-coloured exterior flashes on the screen, and a single string is heard plucking out a poignant chorus of Deutchland Uber Alles, as the camera pans over an unending field of grave markers.
     Just in case you missed the point.
    Like a well-crafted comic book (and the life of Hitler himself), Hitler: The Last Ten Days is an unsubtle mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Fascinating while it lasts, like Lord of the Swastika, it is ultimately overdrawn.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Playing Hitler in a movie can make for an interesting addition to an actor's credits. Among the better known names to have worn the toothbrush moustache on screen recently are Anthony Hopkins (The Bunker; 1981), Robert Carlyle (Hitler: Rise of Evil; 2003); and Bruno Ganz (Downfall; 2004). Being likened to Hitler in the geopolitical arena is more like a death sentence for those identified as "worse than Hitler" in their political villainy. In this century, Iraq's president Saddam Hussein was overthrown and hanged; Libya's prime minister Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and shot; and Al-Quaeda founder Osama bin Laden was tracked down and summarily executed by the heavily-armed heroes of the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team Six (a mission celebrated in the Oscar-nominated 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty).

See Also: In place of the traditional Easter egg hunt, Reeling Back offers a Film Quiz that invites film fans to try their knowledge of Hitler and his henchmen as seen through the camera's lens.