I'm working my way through all the films about Hitler's last days. Downfall seemed set to be the definitive version, but now it's been reduced to a meme. Still, it's a largely accurate, powerful account, with a very strong performance from Bruno Ganz.
In Bologna's Cinematheque I watch Pabst's The Last Act which, aided by the scorching summer weather, packed auditorium and inadequate air conditioning, really felt like spending ten days in a bunker under heavy shelling. The film introduces a fictional anti-war general played by Oscar Werner in a bit of "We're not all bad" special pleading but it gets a lot right.
Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) is notorious for getting a lot wrong: not facts, which are scrupulously attested to and signed off on right at the start by a historian and an actual witness, but the filmmaking and the casting. I don't know who you ought to get if you're making your own Downfall in the early seventies, but thanks to this film we know it shouldn't be Alec Guinness.
And probably don't get Ennio De Concini to direct, either. A distinguished screenwriter (Divorce: Italian Style, The Girl Who Knew Too Much), he was thrown in at the deep end on this, his debut, and his directing skills don't seem equal to his script, which is pretty interesting.
In fact, the film's biggest problem is that it's a British-Italian co-production: being in the right language gives both German version an extraordinary boost. And it's difficult to convince as Hitler if you're speaking English and have a very recognizable voice that isn't Hitler's. Added to that, Guinness simply can't rant and roar with the force we see in Hitler's newsreel speeches, though admittedly he's playing him as a sick man, if not quite as tremulous as the Bruno Ganz incarnation.
The movie was produced by John Heyman, who was responsible for a lot of Joseph Losey's films and whose son has brought us the Harry Potter and Paddington franchises. Which are similarly stuffed with the cream of the British acting establishment, but are somewhat lighter.
This movie very nearly works as a comedy, though. Guinness had a certain dry wit, and it's not absolutely certain he's not applying it at least some of the time. He has to deliver samples of Hitler's "table talk," the dictator's windy pronouncements on matters artistic, social, military and political, most of which are deeply ignorant and many of which are batshit crazy. Deploring the fatness of the average opera singer, he remarks that the medium won't have reached its full potential until the works of Wagner can be performed nude. Posing for his photograph, he expresses the importance of future generations knowing what he looks like: he doesn't want to end up like Jesus, being painted with a ginger beard.
The director serves up some nice formal compositions in the bunker, but can't really animate this static situation into something dramatic (Oliver Hirschbiegel really did a fine job on Downfall, with not a single character who is both sympathetic and active). His attempts to infuse the project with "cinema" (the mystery ingredient) are alternately offensive and ludicrous.
The offensive: archive film is used to make crass, clumsy points, spliced into the long dialogue scenes as a kind of visual relief. When the Führer announces imminent victory, we get the famous shot of the big stone swastika being exploded. Horrific death camp footage is thrown in along with other casualties of the war... you would think this is precisely the context in which such images wouldn't seem gratuitous, but their inclusion still has to be earned.
The ludicrous: to justify the use of black-and-white archive film to represent the war, De Concini shoots all the exteriors in sepia. So that descending into the bunker causes actors to blossom into color, as if they're entering Oz. A crap Oz where you're not allowed to smoke and you have to listen to a maniac loudmouth sounding off endlessly on things he knows nothing about. And yes, it does make you think about the books still to be written about this presidency. It's very Fire and Fury.
It's a shame Guinness isn't fit for purpose since the rest of the cast are very good. Simon Ward's presence is a little confusing because he also played Young Winston for Dickie Attenborough, but we have Phillip Stone, the waiter from The Shining, sound sepulchral, Eric Porter, Julian Glover, a couple of dubbed Italians including one Bond villain.
Best comes last, though. The late Andrew Sachs, famous for playing Manuel on Fawlty Towers, plays the mild-mannered official roped in to marry Hitler to Eva Braun. Sachs knows his comedy, and he knows there's no other way of playing this scene. As part of the ceremony, he has to ask the groom, according to laws the groom himself is responsible for, if he's a pure-blooded Aryan and if he has any hereditary conditions in his family. The look on Hitler's face!
And then they have a nice party and Eva sings in blackface, which is something she apparently liked to do. Al Jolson: the Last Ten Days? And then Hitler tops himself and finally everyone can light up.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.