(0066X) Hitler: The Last Ten Days

Hitler: The Last Ten DaysMay 20, 1973 | 1 week at #1

Seen by Martin before? No

What did I expect? An unimaginably tortuous drama — literally, unimaginable.

What did I get? The subject of Hitler’s bunker is inherently dramatic and interesting. The themes are universal — and yet not at all. What do you do when you find that your vainglorious plans for world domination, predicated upon colossally incorrect assumptions, are on the verge of collapse? Can it be that you will repent, admit error? Not in the world I know. That Hitler is involved makes it different: The epic proportions of the Nazis’ villainy tend to render any attempt to dramatize the historical figures involved farcical, or grossly incommensurate, or both. The ambition of Hitler: The Last Ten Days is scaled to a satisfying television drama, not the greatest conflict of the twentieth century.

Without question the most unexpected #1 of the Boffo project so far, if not ever, Hitler: The Last Ten Days is a chamber drama in which some exemplary British actors valiantly fail to do justice to the fall of the Third Reich. There are only two questions about a movie like this that matter: How does the movie treat Hitler? and Does the movie do justice to this unique situation? On the first question, it scores pretty well; on the second, less well.

Although it is intelligent and careful throughout, the main problem with Hitler: The Last Ten Days is that it is damnably stagebound, its actors, in dutiful Nazi regalia, mostly confined to a decorous and staid soundstage in which the savage emotions of the bedeviled, crestfallen, loyal human heart can play little role; nothing here is resonating out towards any “Germany,” not for a moment.

In the effort to render Hitler not as a world-historical monster but as a flawed human being — the only sane choice for a well-mannered drama, no? — the movie mostly presents Hitler as jovial, urbane, dignified, even jolly — inappositely jolly and self-possessed under the circumstances, even quite late into the movie, which may have basis in historical fact for all I know. He is betrayed, delusional too, sure, but fleetingly. The required mood of panic and collapse is hardly attempted in Hitler, much less achieved. Hitler has his tantrums and then becomes diffident, almost dainty, as if they had never happened. The monster that was also obviously a part of Hitler’s makeup is difficult to discern.

The script stolidly refuses to accrue or release tension. Hitler’s decision to commit suicide is never communicated emotionally — the suicide scene just arrives. In the movie’s one major misstep, Eva Braun, moments before her suicide, realizes, belatedly, that old Adolf is kind of a crumbum after all. In real life, their suicide was not directly witnessed, and the scene is a ham-handed imposition.

This talky British movie is a lot like some of those BBC televised miniseries of the 1970s, like The Pallisers or The Forsyte Saga. Sincerely, I like those BBC dramas, I think they get about as much out of people talking in a room as you possibly can. And the general level of quality here is not so different. It’s the absence of true horror, a horror that has nothing to do with Trollope and Galsworthy, that renders Hitler: The Last Ten Days insubstantial by comparison.

We’ve all seen Bruno Ganz’s internet-famous “meltdown” scene from Der Untergang (Downfall), hilariously subtitled to comment on the subprime mortgage crisis or Kanye West’s latest awards ceremony outrage. That scene happens here, too, and the dialogue is almost identical; clearly, Hitler’s words were recorded verbatim. In this version, Alec Guinness properly emotes and hollers and pounds his fist on the table a few times — it’s not like he’s doing nothing. But it is every bit as real and as fake, as good and as bad, as any excellent actor doing a Shakespearean soliloquy. It’s theatrical and never really real.

Under the circumstances, Guinness did the best he could; this movie was not designed to countenance delusion, derangement, unbalance, as we would today expect. A movie of this type will always foreground thematic material — that is, themes that can be made plain in dialogue. Downfall, a fully fleshed-out movie, is easily able to avoid the problem of characters enunciating the point. Ungainly and unfit for quotidian criteria, the Nazis are never far from camp, and literal Hitler collapses beneath the choice not to confront it. Which is kind of admirable, really.

The movie’s single comic scene occurs late in the movie, when the generals drag a notary, named Walter Wagner, into the bunker to perform the civil wedding between Hitler and Braun. The nervous official’s reliance on the punctilious details of protocol — including a pro forma question whether Hitler is “of pure Aryan origin” — is endearing and relatable. You’d never know it just by watching, but the notary is played by Andrew Sachs, probably better known to you as Manuel, the Spanish waiter in Fawlty Towers.

This movie never quite overcomes the dramaturgical whammy of constumed pantomime, but it’s instructive and tolerably engrossing. In the wake of Downfall, not many British movies from 1973 about the identical material are going to come off looking good, and by that standard, it holds its own. I’ve been hard on Hitler: The Last Ten Days here, but it’s really not so bad. You know who really was so bad? The Nazis.

What here smacks of 1973? In retrospect, a certain tentativeness, a willingness to color within the lines.

IMDB score: 6.6

My score: 6

Director: Ennio De Concini

Writers: Ennio De Concini, Maria Pia Fusco, Ivan Moffat, and Wolfgang Reinhardt

Starring: Alec Guinness, Simon Ward, Adolfo Celi, Diane Cilento, Gabriele Ferzetti, Eric Porter, Doris Kunstmann, Joss Ackland, John Bennett, John Barron, Barbara Jefford, Sheila Gish, Julian Glover, Michael Goodliffe, Mark Kingston, Phyllida Law, Philip Stone, Andrew Sachs

IMDB synopsis: [none provided]

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