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Culture

Film Portrays Hitler in Human Light

Adolf Hitler spent his last days in an underground bunker in Berlin amid a combination of fear and unreality. A new German film captures the madness of his last days and resurrects the Führer as never before.

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Actor Bruno Ganz is startlingly convincing as Hitler

He may be the subject of countless books and works around the world, but there is little doubt that no other phase of Hitler's life arouses as much morbid fascination as the final one.

Housed within the thick walls of his underground bunker in Berlin's Wilhelm Strasse for the last two months of his life, the Nazi leader lived what appears to be an unreal life marked by parties, protocol and grandiose war plans even as the city's civilian population battled for their lives above the ground.

Filmszene - Der Untergang

Juliane Köhler (left) who plays Eva Braun, Hitler's lover, Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler (center) and Heino Ferch as architect Albert Speer in a scene from "Downfall"

The bizarre period is now the theme of a startlingly convincing new film by German star producer Bernd Eichinger. Called "Downfall - Hitler and the End of the Third Reich," the €13.5 million ($16.3 million) film, which boasts a star-studded cast, will open in German cinemas on Sept. 16.

Eichinger and director Oliver Hirschbiegel drew on a best-selling Hitler biography by Joachim Fest, an award-winning historian, and the memoirs of the late Traudl Junge, Hitler's last personal secretary. Junge's book, published just days before she died in late 2002, offers hitherto unknown insights into life in the bunker in the spring of 1945.

Last 12 days of Hitler's life

Filmszene - Der Untergang

A scene from "Downfall"

The two and a half hour film describes the period from April 20, Hitler's last birthday, until May 2, 1945. The Soviet Red Army was fighting at the city gates to gain victory over the Nazi regime while the Führer and his closest followers battled against fear of the Third Reich's collapse in their bunker.

The film shows Hitler on his last birthday as a bent, ashen-faced man holding a garbled speech in the garden of the old imperial chancellory and a rare public kiss with Eva Braun, his girlfriend, after she insists on staying by his side until the end.

Though the film is based on historical fact and eyewitness accounts, some scenes and dialogues have been invented.

"Time is ripe for such a film"

What sets the film apart from past attempts at screen portrayals of Hitler's last days is Eichinger's candid depiction of the Nazi leader as not just a monster, but a tragic human being, marking a more relaxed approach to Germany's past.

"The time is ripe for such a film," Eichinger said during a media screening in Berlin this week. "It's important not just to shed light on one's own history superficially, but rather to tell it from within," he said.

Eichinger stressed that emotions should be consciously allowed when in coming to terms with Hitler from a German perspective. "If you had overall sympathy for Hitler, then the film has failed in its intention. But to show sympathy in certain moments is, I believe, quite fine," Eichinger said.

A more human Hitler

Film über Untergang des NS-Regimes mit Bruno Ganz als Hitler

Bruno Ganz as Hitler in "Downfall"

Veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler in the film, explained that the Führer was a person who had earned the least sympathy. "But I'm not ashamed of the fact that I could feel sympathy for him during fleeting seconds," Ganz said in Berlin.

Historian Fest, who was consulted closely by Eichinger during the making of the film, said, "Ganz is really Hitler: when you look at him you feel a chill down your spine."

In the film, Ganz barks out orders far removed from reality -- ordering nonexistent units into battle -- during the last days in the bunker. His shaking hand concealed behind his back, he holds hate-filled monologues about the Jews, alleged betrayers and victory that is assured in any case.

His angry outbursts at the inability of his army to stave off the Soviet attack are interspersed with moments of friendliness towards his female staff and towards Eva Braun, who he marries just a day before their joint suicide.

"A real face to the drama"

Filmszene - Der Untergang

Justus von Dohnanyi as General Burgdorf, left, and Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in the film "Downfall"

There is little doubt that Eichinger is treading controversial ground with his more humane treatment of Hitler in a country where displaying Nazi emblems is banned and Germans are long used to be constantly reminded in movies and books that Hitler was the 20th century's worst war criminal.

The film has already generated hot debate in the German press, with some critics fearing it could pander to neo-Nazis. "('Downfall') prompts the question whether one should be allowed to feel sympathy for Hitler," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung weekly wrote.

Others have taken a more favorable view. Der Spiegel newsmagazine, which devoted its cover story to the film this week, wrote that Eichinger had managed what no one had before: "To give the absurd drama in the bunker a real face."

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