Judge Jim Thomas isn't sure, but he thinks the scene about Hitler canceling his gardening magazines just before his suicide could be a historical inaccuracy.
"The heart of Germany has ceased to beat. The führer is dead."
Over sixty years after his death, Hitler still fascinates us. The History Channel, upon its inception, had its schedule packed with so many biographies of Hitler and his associates that some people still refer to it as "The Hitler Channel." There have been multiple films, several in the past few years, including 2002's Max, which depicted a young Hitler's friendship with a Jewish art teacher, and 2004's Downfall, a German film by Oliver Hirschbiegel which covers the last twelve days in Hitler's life. Interestingly, Downfall covers basically the same territory as the 1973 feature Hitler: The Last Ten Days, which featured a solid cast that included Alec Guinness in the title role. The latter film is now available on DVD, courtesy of Legend Films.
Facts of the Case
As the Third Reich crumbles, Americans and British approaching Berlin from the west, Russians approaching Berlin from the east, Hitler (Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai), along with several of his generals, advisors, their wives, and his mistress, Eva Braun (Doris Kunstmann), have retreated to an underground bunker beneath the German Chancellery in Berlin. Over the next ten days, they are forced to come to terms with the inevitability of German defeat.
Even when the film was initially released, it was widely criticized for various inaccuracies, the biggest of which was the depiction of Hitler himself. In real life, Hitler had a nervous breakdown shortly after entering the bunker, and was kept heavily drugged afterwards. But no one wanted to see a stupefied, thick-tongued Hitler. Instead, Guinness offers a charming, good-natured fellow, whose delusions and rage only occasionally break through the genial façade. While it's an engaging enough performance, Guinness doesn't really immerse himself in the part. That problem is compounded because the film stays so relentlessly focused on Hitler that he is really the only character in the film developed to any degree. There's no one else with whom we can identify. The goal seems to be to make Hitler into a Shakespearean villain along the lines of Richard III, but frankly, such a transformation does not seem possible for a man such as Hitler. As a result, there's Hitler, and then there's everybody else. Simon Ward (The Three Musketeers) has second billing as Captain Hoffman, an aide dispatched from the front who finds himself suddenly trapped in the bunker, slowly becoming aware that nobody is expected to leave the bunker alive. That's where the part appears to be heading, at least; Ward has precious little screen time for second billing.
A similar historical problem mars the end of the movie. After a tirade from Hitler, his new wife Eva kills herself with cyanide out of spite; only after Hitler realizes what she has done does he kill himself. In reality, they died together, holding hands. But the movie wants to suggest that at the end, everyone turns against Hitler. Thus, the movie quickly falls into a predictable pattern. Congenial Hitler makes a prediction as to what is happening above ground, and there's a quick cut to archival footage showing the exact opposite happening (this progression is a cliché by the movie's end). The generals try to reason with Hitler, and there's a sudden outburst from Hitler. The result is that with very few exceptions, there is very little real drama, just cutout figures moving along their predetermined paths. The final scene is interesting, though; upon being informed that Hitler is dead, all of the characters light up cigarettes or cigars, Hitler having banned tobacco in the bunker. Then we cut to the credits. Is the smoking an act scorn against Hitler? Relief that it's over at last? An odd form of salute? Certainly many of the generals must have been relieved, but what of Joseph Goebbels and his wife, who were both so devoted to Hitler?
The disposable nature of the supporting characters is highlighted by the conclusion—we never discover what happens to any of the other occupants of the bunker. Hannah Reisch and Colonel-General Robert Ritter von Greim profess their intent to hold hands and pull the pin from a grenade—do they follow through? History says no: Hitler ordered them to live, and Reisch flew the two to safety on literally the last plane out of Berlin before the city fell; in the movie, though, Reisch is present at the end.
Trivia Time: The movie is a James Bond reunion of sorts: Adolph Celi (Emile Largo in Thunderball) plays General Krebs, one of the few voices of reason in the bunker; Gabriele Ferzetti (Marc Ange Draco in On Her Majesty's Secret Service), plays Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel; and Diane Cilento, who was married to Sean Connery from 1962 to 1973, plays Hannah Reitsch, once Hitler's personal pilot, who manages a risky landing in the middle of Berlin to bring Colonel-General Robert Ritter von Greim to Hitler's side.
Video and sound are good, but not exceptional. The pervasive use of lanterns results in some problems with color correction; characters in dim lighting with a lantern to their rear have excessively red faces. This being Legend Films, there are no extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two or three scenes retain a certain power. In our first glimpse of Guinness as Hitler, his personal physician is requesting to be named head of the German Red Cross. The doctor makes his case by citing his long record of human experimentation. The scene is intercut with shots of mass graves and piled bodies; just the thought of such a man running the Red Cross makes the skin crawl, so naturally, Hitler approves the appointment. In another scene, an officer brings a stack of autographed pictures of Hitler to a member of the Hitler Youth waiting outside the bunker; as the child waits, another officer is dragged outside and executed (the reasons for the execution are explained some 10-15 minutes earlier in the film—the officer was caught attempting to sneak out of Berlin. One would think the execution would have been immediate; the delay results in some confusion because you don't immediately recognize that the officer being executed is the one from the earlier scene). The scenes outside the bunker are presented in the same sepia tones as the archival footage, which lends those scenes a greater aura of verisimilitude. Finally, a scene in which Eva sings "When You're Smiling" to a despondent room really captures the group's desperate attempts to not think about how their fate.
The score makes liberal and effective use of Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, appropriate in more ways than one. What makes the use so effective is that the music is exceptionally soft, so that it accents a scene rather than punctuating it (cf., Excalibur).
The problem with this film isn't that it takes liberties with history; it's often done for dramatic effect. The problem is that there doesn't appear to be any advantage gained from the changes that were made. The final result is a jumbled mess, full of characters we don't care about. As a result, the movie doesn't really succeed as drama or as history.
While certainly not guilty of crimes against humanity, the film is guilty of not being particularly imaginative or compelling.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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