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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Making Hitler Human

Two new German films seek to flesh out his ghost. They don't downplay his evil, but some fear the display of any flicker of sympathy.

September 14, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

COLOGNE, Germany — Adolf Hitler flickers on old newsreels, a grainy ghost of spastic gesture and rousing speech. Arm slanted skyward, face drenched in sweat, he seems one-dimensional yet beyond comprehension.

Those sinister images will never fade, but today a new Hitler lurks.

He is in color. He speaks in a mannered voice. He attends parties lighted by chandelier. He pinches the cheeks of little boys, walks with friends through snowy forests. He jokes. And for a fleeting moment, when his scowling and ranting calm, he seems fragile as he conceals a hand shaking from what is believed to have been Parkinson's disease.

Two German directors are for the first time giving this nation a more human cinematic portrait of the Fuehrer. Once relegated to cameo appearances or skulking in the wings, the Hitler of German film is stepping center stage.

Considered by some critics risky artistic explorations of evil that could instigate right-wing fascination, the movies are attempts to pierce the unfathomable. Imbuing the author of "Mein Kampf" with the tics and foibles of humanity, the directors say, makes him more frightening, his acts more despicable.

"Hitler was a genius seducer, so you have to show that he was charming. You have to show him as a human being," said Heinrich Breloer, director of "The Devil's Architect," one of the films. "But he is also ruthless, a killer with the eyes of a shark. You have to depict all his nuances. We have to look at the man behind the newsreel images."

The new movies coincide with the recent trend of reexamining the Holocaust and a widening revisionist scholarship that is enabling Germans to portray themselves as victims of a madman who were forced to endure the destruction wrought by Allied bombing.

Hitler has been the insect on the pin of German imagination since World War II. Nearly every night, German television airs footage of the period from the days of Hitler's ascension to the ruins of Hamburg and Dresden -- reminders meant to help prevent a repeat of the atrocities. Today, Germany is the world's third-largest economy and a prominent voice for democracy and human rights. The age of penance and absolution is over, according to young Germans who are more preoccupied with globalization than the horrors of the past.

"The younger generation doesn't feel it's part of those crimes anymore," said Rainer Rother, director of the film archives at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. "There's no family guilt. It's history. The main thing for today's young Germans is not accusation, like it was for the young generation of the 1960s. Today's youth are more interested in, 'How did it happen, and what made Hitler and the others tick?' "

The specter of Hitler is more difficult for older generations to come to terms with. Jewish groups are protesting the Sept. 22 opening of the art collection of Friedrich Christian Flick, the grandson of one of Hitler's military contractors, who amassed a fortune using slave labor. Last year, Degussa, a company that manufactured poison for concentration camps, ignited a round of soul-searching over its contract to supply an anti-graffiti coating for Berlin's new Holocaust memorial.

The Fuehrer still haunts. Studies of him have veered from caricature to the absurd to guilt-inspired documentaries and insightful biographies. Fleshing Hitler out as a fully formed character, wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper, "prompts the question whether one should be allowed to feel sympathy" for a leader whose warped ambitions led to the deaths of 50 million people.

"The time is ripe for such a film," Bernd Eichinger, the 55-year-old producer and screenwriter of "Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich," said at a recent news conference. "It's important not just to shed light on one's own history superficially, but rather to tell it from within.... If you had an overall sympathy for Hitler, then the film has failed in its intention. But to show sympathy in certain moments is, I believe, quite fine."

Unmasking the Hitler of 1930s propaganda films, such as Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," would be for many a chance to assess how the nation that created Beethoven also spawned the Final Solution.

"What is Germany?" asked Breloer, 62, an archival detective with a graying mustache whose film about Hitler's armaments minister, Albert Speer, is a blend of documentary footage and meticulously re-imagined scenes. "I love the Germany of Goethe and Thomas Mann. But the biggest riddle of my life is how Hitler happened. How could a brutal gang win this country? They overran it. They overwhelmed it. What was in the hearts of our fathers and grandfathers?"

"The Devil's Architect," scheduled to air on German television in May, examines Speer and his relationship with Hitler. Intelligent and politically clever, Speer was tried at Nuremberg in 1946 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

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