Swiss actor Bruno Ganz has taken on the most controversial role of his career, portraying Adolf Hitler in a new German film.
“Der Untergang” (“The Downfall”), which opened on Thursday in Switzerland, has been criticised for showing a human side to the Nazi dictator.
“It was probably time to do this film,” Ganz told the “NZZ am Sonntag” newspaper. But he admits that his portrayal of Hitler may be hard for some to accept.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s drama has possibly broken one of Germany’s last taboos, showing Hitler as something other than just a monster, and prompting criticism that the director has gone too far.
Hirschbiegel says the film was in no way intended to provoke sympathy for Hitler. “The movie set out to put an end to the simplistic way of depicting Hitler up to now. We only saw Hitler as a monster, as a mad psychopath – a cartoon kind of character.”
The film explores the dictator’s last days in his Berlin bunker, as the Soviet army closes in on the German capital, slowly reducing it to rubble.
German cinema fans have been flocking to see the film since it opened there last Thursday. More than half a million tickets were sold in its opening weekend, setting a box office record this year.
Critics and historians are divided over the film’s qualities.
Renowned British Nazi specialist Ian Kershaw said this was the first time he found a depiction of the dictator convincing. “Bruno Ganz sounds almost exactly like Hitler,” he said.
But German historian Hans Mommsen questions the film’s relevance, saying personal portrayals do nothing to help understanding of how history unfolds.
The film focuses on the closing days of the Second World War. All over Berlin, the horrendous tally of dead and wounded rises, even though nobody is counting.
Down in his bunker, the delusional Hitler is still thinking of victory, and ordering non-existent troops to attack the Red Army.
For the last 12 days of his life, the dictator is a bitter, hateful and sick man, a physical and mental wreck.
Hitler finally commits suicide along with his partner Eva Braun.
His propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, also kills himself and his wife after poisoning their six children. “It is not worth living in a world without the Führer and National Socialism,” he is supposed to have said.
Two faces of Hitler
Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler reveals a complex character, driven by madness, self-pity and latent brutality.
In effect, Ganz plays two characters: Adolf and Hitler. Adolf is charming with children and the ladies, compliments their cooking and is everyone’s favourite uncle.
Hitler shouts orders, throws fits, decrees executions and shows no mercy for his people. “If the war is lost, it doesn’t matter if the population goes down with us.”
Ganz was producer Bernd Eichinger’s first choice for the role. He was looking for an actor who could convincingly show the multiple facets of Hitler’s personality.
Ganz demanded a screen test in full make-up before deciding whether to take on the role.
“When Bruno stepped in front of the camera for the test, the ghost that appeared gave the whole crew the creeps,” the producer said. “The man in the make-up was Hitler.”
The resemblance between the actor and the dictator is striking. Facial expressions, the walk, the voice, the shaking hands, the outbursts, and the mad plans all contribute to making Ganz’s dictator authentic and credible.
“During the casting, I was surprised myself how closely I outwardly resembled Hitler,” said Ganz. “And it was then that my acting ambition took hold of me and made me want to take on the role.”
For the Swiss actor, having to mimic Hitler’s anti-Semitic tirades and callous attitude towards the Germans were what made him most hesitant about accepting the role.
“It became a threshold I had to cross, and then I was there.”
There is no question that Ganz has given the monster a human face. After invading most of Europe, murdering millions, and bringing Germany to its knees, the demon reveals his human side in his last 12 days.
“What we are trying to do is give him a three-dimensional portrait because we know from all accounts that he was a very charming man,” says Hirschbiegel. “He managed to seduce a whole people into barbarism – a monster could never achieve that.”
Amid the rants and diatribes in the bunker, Hitler gets married, shows seemingly genuine affection for his bride and staff, reveals an inferiority complex, pats his dog and slurps his soup.
“I didn’t have a problem doing this,” admits Ganz. “Does a mass murderer eat his soup any differently from another person?”
Often shot like a documentary, in particular the bunker scenes, the film also contains real footage showing the progress of the Red Army through the city and the suffering of the civilian population.
Told from the point of view of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries in his Berlin bunker, Der Untergang is also based on eyewitness accounts from a book of the same name by German historian Joachim Fest.
"Der Untergang" attracted 480,000 cinemagoers in the first four days after it opened in Germany.
The film is one of the most expensive productions ever made in Germany, costing €13.5 million (SFr20 million).
It has sparked a debate in Germany over its portrayal of Hitler's "human" side.
Bruno Ganz was born on March 22, 1941 in Zurich of Swiss and Italian parents.
His acting career began in theatre in 1961. He founded the Berlin theatre company "Schaubühne" in 1970.
Ganz started to make a name for himself after appearing in Werner Herzog’s "Nosferatu" (not as the vampire) in 1979, although it was his lead role in Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire” in 1987 that established him internationally.
He is set to appear in the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” later this year.