by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ended up in the living room last night watching the TCM showing of the 1962 biopic Hitler, one of a night TCM devoted to biopics of people involved in World War II on both sides (including PT 109, the hagiography of John F. Kennedy made during his presidency with Cliff Robertson playing him; and The Desert Fox, 20th Century-Fox’s surprisingly sympathetic treatment of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel — ironically they based their script on the idea that Rommel really did have a falling-out with Hitler and had some participation in the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life — most modern writers discount that). I’d seen it once before in the 1970’s, when it aired on a late-night movie channel right after the premiere of The Bunker, the made-for-TV movie about Hitler’s last days with Anthony Hopkins, and I thought it would be fun to have a Hitler double-bill.
In Hitler the title role is played by Richard Basehart, and despite an outrageously phony crepe moustache (revealed as such in all his closeups), Basehart actually does pretty well in the role despite a script by E. Charles Straus (who also produced) and Sam Neuman that made Hitler a good deal crazier than he actually was. Until 1942 or so, when something made him snap and gradually lose contract with reality, Hitler had not been crazy; he’d been evil, certainly, but he’d remained a rational man pursuing profoundly irrational ends through rational means. (Pat Buchanan’s infamous statement that Hitler was “a man of great courage and extraordinary gifts” was actually true; it was what he did with that courage and those gifts that made him evil.)
Directed by old Warners hack Stuart Heisler for a “collapsible” production company called Three Crowns, releasing through Allied Artists (née Monogram) and now owned by Warners, Hitler is a relentlessly melodramatic film, zipping through Hitler’s life starting with the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 and his subsequent imprisonment at Landsberg (a luxurious villa provided by Hitler’s rich corporate friends — it was more like Roman Polanski’s current house arrest than anything we normally think of as prison) and focusing so much on his romantic entanglements first with his niece, Geli Raubal (Cordula Trantow) and then with Eva Braun (Maria Emo), the film might just as well have been called Hitler: The Soap Opera. The conceit of the Straus-Neuman script is to see Hitler in Freudian terms as someone who never broke free of his Oedipus complex and so idealized his mother (who died when he was nine) that he was attracted only to women who looked like his mother, and even then he couldn’t perform the sex act with them because that would have been literally like doing it with his mother. Supposedly this piece of psychological glare-ice on his character was enough to turn him into a vicious dictator and a murderous monster — though, curiously, the script soft-pedals the Holocaust and shows Hitler’s ruthlessness and meanness mainly through his treatment of enemies (real or imagined) at home.
The film is over half finished before it gets out of Hitler’s bedroom and onto the battlefield — it’s liberally sprinkled with stock footage from the captured German newsreels as well as Nazi party rally footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (and yes, the stunning visual eloquence of Riefenstahi’s footage pounds Heisler into the dust, as it usually does when it’s incorporated into films about Hitler and the Nazis) — and despite some good performances by the actors playing Hitler’s henchmen (Martin Kosleck as Goebbels in particular — he’d aged badly since he previously played Goebbels in the 1944 Paramount film The Hitler Gang, which also focused on Hitler’s relationship with Geli Raubal and its uncertain ending — supposedly she committed suicide, but this film depicts Hitler’s henchmen murdering her on his orders and then faking it to look like suicide— but he still brings power and authority to the role) and a hint of the real agenda behind Hitler’s 1934 purge of his Gay second-in-command Ernst Röhm (Berry Kroeger) and Röhm’s main boyfriend Edmond Heines (Lester Fletcher) is given when an unctuous narrator (almost no self-respecting movie about the Nazis in 1962 came without a narrator) lists all the failings of the various Nazi bigwigs — mentioning Göring’s (John Mitchum) drug addiction — and bluntly calls Röhm a “pervert.”
Hitler is a decent movie for what it is, though a film that offered glimpses into Hitler’s genuinely charming nature (particularly chillingly portrayed in the documentary featuring his secretary, Traudl Junge, called Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary) and made him out as more than a certifiably raving lunatic would have paradoxically made the evil things he did that much more chilling. Also, it’s clear that Basehart never solved the biggest problem playing Hitler, which Anthony Hopkins articulated in the interviews he gave to promote The Bunker: how do you talk? The only audio-visual records of Hitler that exist are the ones of him in full public cry, expertly building his speeches for maximum audience reaction (in Mein Kampf he wrote that the secret to political leadership was in developing a compelling public speaking style that would dramatize his ideas for an audience and irresistibly move them to action — and he certainly practiced what he preached), and there’s really no clue as to how he spoke when he wasn’t on the podium and was just carrying on a private conversation with Eva and/or his friends. (There are silent home movies of him and Eva Braun together, and some people with expertise in lip-reading German have attempted to figure out what he was saying — ranging from tirades against the Jews to comments on celebrities; in one of the films he’s shown discussing the movie Gone With the Wind, which the Nazis didn’t allow to be shown publicly in Germany but of which they had a private print and they screened it for each other — and both Hitler and Goebbels sent directives to the people running the German film industry asking why they couldn’t make a picture as good.)
Basehart makes the mistake most actors playing Hitler have made — having him rant in private just as much as he did in public — and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to believe that this weirdo would have gone as far as he did, have got an entire country in his thrall and come damned close to conquering the world. It’s also a movie that presupposes a lot of advance knowledge of what is going on — nobody who hadn’t read at least some of the literature on Hitler and/or World War II would have been able to figure out from this movie how Hitler fell so fast from ruling most of continental Europe to hiding in a bunker while his enemies converged on his capital. Hitler’s story remains compelling — less out of intrinsic interest and more as a warning of how easily a country can be led to genocide by a shrewd political leader and a movement aimed at hooking at their prejudices (and I can’t listen to the inflamed rhetoric against “illegal aliens” sweeping the country these days without being all too aware of the similarities between it and the way Hitler and his fellow Nazis talked about the Jews) — and the interest in how a great country with an honorable liberal tradition was led so totally down a sick and disgusting path by an unscrupulous organizer effective at manipulating people by their fears and hatreds (and, alas, Germany in the 1930’s was not the last country this has happened to: unscrupulous leaders in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda in the 1990’s pulled the same tricks with the same bloodthirsty results) — has led to an enormous literature on Hitler and will no doubt survive this rather silly soap-operaish treatment of the Hitler legend.