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It shows the Third Reich crumbling amid the bang of bombs and the whimper of recrimination. The bunker’s inmates quarrel and party in a grisly dance of death, while Hitler appears as a quivering wreck, one minute blubbering in self-pity, the next mustering the energy to rant hatefully about the Final Solution or tucking into ravioli. But in Germany the debate has raged over whether it is permissible to portray Hitler as a human being at all.

That honour in Downfall belongs to the distinguished Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, possessor of the mystical Iffland Ring, which for 200 years has been awarded to the most important German-speaking actor of each generation. Ganz says that, of course he shuddered, just as anyone else would, at the role. “I asked people I’ve known a long time and whom I trust, and they all advised me against it,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “We’ve internalised a kind of taboo against playing him.”

He was encouraged by the wealth of source material: a rare tape-recording of Hitler speaking in his normal, non-demagogic voice and the many personal memoirs by the people around him. They provided minute insights into how Hitler walked, talked and cleared his throat. These, Ganz said, enabled him not to brood too long on the man’s deadly Weltanschauung but to concentrate instead on the way he held his hands.

Apart from G.W. Pabst’s 1955 film The Last Ten Days, the only previous German attempt to show the Führer on screen has been Hans Juergen Syberberg’s eccentric six-hour epic, Hitler, A Film From Germany, made in 1977. Then, Syberberg agonised over how, or even whether, to depict his protagonist. In the end, Hitler was played by different actors, performed by puppets and even voiced by a ventriloquist’s doll. It was a low-budget, high-camp, extremely polemical tour through the German psyche and the reasons for Hitler’s hold over it.

Downfall is nothing like that. A relatively lavish production with a large cast, it’s based on historical sources: Inside Hitler’s Bunker, by the scholar Joachim Fest, and Until the Final Hour, by Traudl Junge, Hitler’s private secretary. This time the aim, according to Bernd Eichinger, who produced both it and Syberberg’s film, is to “grip the viewer, without preaching at him”. Source: The Telegraph

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