Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)



          The ignominious final chapter of Adolf Hitler’s life has inspired several pieces of grim drama, including the extraordinary German film Downfall (2004), the TV movie The Bunker (1981), and this British/Italian coproduction starring the venerable English actor Alec Guinness. Downfall exudes authenticity not least because its German characters actually speak German, and The Bunker features Anthony Hopkins as Der Führer. Yet Hitler: The Last Ten Days is not to be dismissed. Beyond the virtues of Guinness’ performance (more on that later), the film benefits from a rigid aesthetic. The camera never leaves the bunker in which Hitler spent his final days, so whenever director Ennio de Concini references the bigger canvas of the war happening outside the bunker, he cuts to grainy black-and-white newsreels. This cleverly underscores the idea that Hitler was living in a parallel reality of his own twisted imagining, even as those closest to him embraced the truth of the Third Reich’s imminent defeat.
          Set in April 1945, the film begins with the appearance at the bunker’s front gate of one Captain Hoffman (Simon Ward). Though incidental to the main narrative, he provides the audience’s viewpoint. Hoffman discovers a Hitler inexplicably confident that victory is still possible, conspiring and ranting before an audience comprising his lover, Eva Braun (Doris Kuntsmann), and a revolving cast of aides and generals. In some sequences, Der Führer calmly orders military deployments, and in others, he issues maniacal decrees such as commanding that the Hitler Youth engage in suicide missions. The most vivid scenes accentuate the grandiosity of Hitler’s self-image. “The gods give their love to those who demand the impossible,” he rails at one point. “Everything I do and everything I say is history!” Dismissive of the horrific loss of life he has caused, Hitler obsesses about his place in history, for instance demanding accurate portraiture so his likeness isn’t subject to interpretation, like that of Jesus Christ. At his most deranged, Hitler decommissions generals for refusing to execute his (insane) orders, barking to one insolent subordinate: “I will drown you in your own blood!” Everything moves, inexorably, toward the grim ritual of Der Führer leading his closest partisans toward mass suicide.
          Presented as a dark chamber piece within a handful of shadowy rooms, the picture employs music sparingly, with a well-chosen Wagner excerpt providing mournful atmosphere during a few key moments. The acting is as respectable, and occasionally as mannered, as the dialogue, but everything is merely background to Guinness’ performance. Despite never achieving true frothing-at-the-mouth abandon, Guinness works up a good head of steam during unhinged monologues, and he spews final-solution venom with unnerving conviction. The sum effect avoids the easy traps of exaggerating Hitler’s tics or recklessly softening him in the name of humanizing a character. Rather, Hitler: The Last Ten Days presents a sober depiction of a hateful demagogue whose grip on reality is inexorably tethered to his grip on power. As one weakens, so does the other, forcing those in his orbit to choose between loyalty and salvation.

Hitler: The Last Ten Days: GROOVY

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