Wednesday 15 July 2015

Hitler onscreen and I - Some thoughts following Oliver Hirschbiegel's 13 Minutes

The 1980 Melbourne Film Festival presented the Australian premiere of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's Hitler:A Film From Germany. Made in 1977 it ran over four parts and totalled 442 minutes all up, that's just under seven and half hours. The theatre, the 800 seat National, just around the corner from the Palais, was near full when it started. Quickly the audience started to thin out as people realised that Syberberg's long, rambling, obscure poetic rendition of the tyrant's life was not quite what they expected. My old, and now departed friend and Festival Committee member, Pat Gordon explained to me at the time something I dont think had really ever struck me before. All sorts of what you might call 'normal' people are fascinated by Adolf Hitler and that's why the books and movies about him will never stop.

I think I've only come rather late again to this phenomena perhaps prodded by seeing a couple of films that I chanced upon almost by accident. And ever since Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (Germany, 2004) there have been ever more reminders as well  - among the best are these - one that hit Kevin Rudd, from 2010 here   and to balance things up one from 2013 that gives Tony Abbbot a thumping here . Among the oddities is a summary of all the actors, or at least 65 of them, who have played Hitler in a movie that has been assembled by Olaf Moller in his Conference - Notes on Film 05. description here And the books continue. The latest edition of the New York Review has a piece about six new books devoted to the Nazi concentration camps, the Holocaust, the post-war trials and other issues.

At Bologna in 2014 a section was devoted to "The Cinema at war against Hitler" curated by the legendary late Peter von Bagh. The survey was small but broad and included Olaf's film as well as G W Pabst's The Last Act (Austria, 1955), basically the Downfall story, John Farrow's Hitler as gangster movie The Hitler Gang (USA, 1944)   and a genuine oddity, Frank Tuttle's The Magic Face  (USA,1951). In that film, posited as a true story, it is claimed that a lowly stage magician killed Hitler and took his place and made decisions, like the invasion of Russia, that destroyed the German war effort from within. Believe it or not...

So, I cant run through the sixty five, probably more, Hitlers on screen because I haven't seen them all by a long shot. The latest however comes with much prestige attached to it, largely because it is the second go-round the Hitler years material by Hirschbiegel, a follow up to Downfall and an attempt to shine a light on a near forgotten moment in German war history. Out of curiosity I looked up Alan Bullock's biography (published in 1952, and there would have been dozens more published based on later and greater research). and it lists Elser in the index and puts the word plot in inverted commas and covers the matter in just a couple of paras. Bullock's view of George Elser and the attempt to kill Hitler in November 1939 is that it was an event 'organised by the Gestapo as a means of raising the Fuhrer's popularity in the country’. That's not the view taken in Hirschbiegel's film.

Leftist in his politics, beset with family dysfunction and, somewhat improbably, very attractive to women, George Elser is a lone wolf who, with daring, skill and bravado, almost kills Adolf Hitler in 1939. The supposition is that it would have been a gamechanger and the war, then going gangbusters for Germany, may have petered out. But it fails and Elser spends the rest of the war explaining himself, first by being tortured, later by forced co-operation. He is kept alive because the Fuhrer believes he could have only have done what he did via conspiracy and thus wants to know the names of others. 

The film starts a way long time before this and we get a long exposition of Elser's tangled life and his involvement with another man's wife. Who knew all that I thought. But gripping in the telling, especially for all those normal people with a Hitler fascination.

13 Minutes opens on 23 July

16 July 2015

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