Die Sterne des Bühne und Leinwand
Ever since the dark days of the Second World War, the controversial figure of Adolf Hitler has been a rich vein of Hollywood portrayal. While the judgment of history on this remarkable man — misunderstood genius? political visionary? overly effective patriot? — is still pending, it cannot be denied that he is as magnetic a figure on the silver screen as he was in life.
Unfortunately, as with in so many other cinematic genres, when it comes to historical drama, the Dream Factory is too often concerned with the perpetuation of clumsy stereotypes and cheap jokes than with the accurate portrayal of legendary figures. Too often, the character of the beloved Führ, er, of this highly volatile figure is portrayed as clownish, the personification of a comic-opera German, or worse yet, some sort of immoral beast. Loose talk is constantly thrown around by ignorant critics and so-called ‘historians’ — “genocide” this, “history’s greatest monster” that, “embodiment of all that is evil” the other. Come now! Is this film criticism, or Sunday school?
Perhaps it is time to reassess not only Hitler the man, but Hitler the fictional character. If we are to truly appreciate this towering figure of the 20th century, we have no choice but to view him through the mongrelized lens of degraded ‘popular culture’. If Hitler is, as the common consensus has it, the greatest man of this or any other era, then why have fictional representations of him been viewed through such a narrow lens? Why do filmgoers learn of Hitler the leader, Hitler the general, Hitler the conquerer — but never of Hitler the comedian, Hitler the tap-dancer, Hitler the collector of stamps? Dramas, biographies and histories of him abound, but where are the Hitler sports films, the Hitler romantic comedies, the Hitler martial arts action epics? If you were to watch a dozen movies about this great humanitarian, you might only learn of his great love of ethnic cleansing, and never even be made aware of his great love of feeding dogs. No other historical figure is presented in such a one-sided fashion! Do you watch a film about Genghis Khan and not learn about his interest in hats? Do you watch a film about Abraham Lincoln that neglects to bring up his addiction to morphine? Do you watch a film about Igor Stravinsky where his passion for crossed-word puzzles goes unmentioned? Of course not, mein fr — my friends! Of course not!
Not since Leni Riefenstahl’s unflinchingly honest, warts-and-all portrayal of Herr Hitler in the hit musical Triumph of the Will have the motion pictures dared to put an authentic and well-rounded picture of the always-outrageous German leader on the screen. They have preferred instead to take the easy way out, and show us a Hitler who is either murderously insane (as if FDR or Jesus or Gandhi didn’t enjoy a nice long killing binge, but you’ll never hear about that in ‘politically correct’ Hollywood!) or a figure of fun. And not comical in the way that those of us who knew, I mean, those of us who heard about him were so familiar with — we never see the Hitler who was expert at wordplay, adept at tumble-down physical humor, and fond of spicy limericks. If Hitler were alive today, which of course he is not and anyone who thinks otherwise should certainly stop looking, he would not countenance this treatment! Somehow, in the world according to blood-tainted Hollywood pimps, it is acceptable to portray der Führer as being kicked in the pants-seat by a cartoon rabbit, but not acceptable to recreate his droll impression of von Ribbentrop that had all of
us those in attendance at the Wannsee Conference rolling in the aisles.
At least some of the blame must lie with the actors who have played the great leader. Rarely have the powers that be in Tinseltown entrusted this gargantuan role to a thespian worthy of it. From professional hacks like Luther Adler and Bobby Watson to warmed-over television personalities like Robert Carlyle and Derek Jacobi to the aptly named Richard Basehart, a decent performance of the valiant Hitler is as rare as a lead role for Elizabeth Berkley post-Showgirls. Let us have less Ludwig Haases and more Lukas Haases, I say! If the amazing Austrian is to be portrayed by Ian McKellen or Anthony Hopkins, then allow him to be shown wielding a utilizing magnetic powers and eating people’s faces! A world where the finest portrayal of this great man is by Mel Blanc will not stand! And for goodness sakes, let there be no more portrayals of the man by people with extremely suspicious names like Steven Berkoff and Roy Goldman.
I could go on at great length about the injustices done to this important historical figure by the motion picture industry. I could talk about films with misleading titles like The Death of Adolf Hitler. I could talk about how the 1981 film The Journal of Bridget Hitler is neither as prescient nor as entertaining as you might think. I could talk at great length about the horrors inflicted on the reputation of the German people by the likes of Udo Kier. But for now, let us suffice to say that until we rehabilitate Hitler the fictional character, we cannot begin the vital work of rehabilitating Hitler the man. Not that I’m suggesting we do that, of course! Ha ha! Because it would be wrong. Yes.
Merton Blormann has been the film critic for the Buenos Aires Daily Shopper since 1946.