Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) dir. Ennio De Concini
Starring: Alec Guinness, Simon Ward, Doris Kunstmann, Adolfo Celi, Diane Cilento, John Bennett and Joss Ackland
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
The recent 2008 Christmas release of Bryan Singer’s let’s-kill-Hitler thriller “Valkyrie”, featuring a bunch of (mostly) non-Germans playing Germans in Nazi Germany, is perhaps reason enough for a fresh look at an odd 70s outing that also features (mostly) non-Germans playing Germans in Nazi Germany. Hitler: The Last Ten Days”, a 1973 British-Italian (!) co-production is definitely flawed in dealing with this subject, but I am less convinced how some might consider it the worst. It is ultimately, at the very least, the strangest. In fact, a little part of me wishes it went even further than it does. Its kitsch value is not without merit, but a tad subdued, its laughs (yes, you read me correctly - laughs) careen wildly from genuine to some which feel (though, in fact, might not be) unintentional knee-slappers and last, but not least, its tremendously bizarre, but brilliant performance from Alec Guinness in the title role.
Yes, Alec Guinness! Obi-Wan-Kenobi dolled-up with that distinctive hair-do and ‘stache popularized by Der Fuhrer himself. (Does it bug anyone else that such a fabulous moustache CANNOT be sported by gentlemen because of what it unpalatably conjures up?) And what a performance! At times, Guinness plays him as bone-chillingly terrifying, at others, a frightful, self-obsessed dullard, and yet at others, positively buffoonish – Guinness leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to bring to life the epitome of 20th century evil. His interpretation, which occasionally borders on cartoon-ish has been subject to considerable derision. Many critics have labeled Guinness’ portrayal to be an unintentional homage to Chaplin in “The Great Dictator”. This is unfair. I would argue that Guinness is, in fact, digging so deep to present Der Fuhrer’s obviously unbalanced state of mind during the final days of Germany’s demise during World War II that, as an actor, he (like the great Chaplin) was using his instrument to its fullest capacity and perhaps tapping similar, and frankly, unavoidable territory.
As the title clearly states, the movie recounts the time in Hitler’s Berlin bunker before he took his own life. The world it creates is one of claustrophobia, paranoia and futility. Since we already know where things are headed, there are few surprises in store for us in terms of the narrative and where it inevitably must go, but the ride we’re taken on is full of many surprises – mostly in terms of observation and attention to odd details. In fact, there really is very little by way of a narrative arc – Hitler is evil and cold at the beginning and by the end he’s, well… evil and cold. There is certainly little in the way of tension also. First, there’s the aforementioned historical inevitability and secondly, the fact that Hitler’s primary obstacle is himself and as such, there is little doubt while the picture unspools that he’ll never surmount the conflicts that rage in his magma-head and spew from his mouth.
In addition to the abovementioned “flaws” (to some, they’re “flaws”, but I suspect they’re just an inevitability given the subject matter), the picture seems almost marred by two relatively clunky devices.
First of all, the editing style makes little sense. It is almost wall-to-wall with soft cuts, rapid fades and dissolves and a disjointedness that both jangles and annoys. It is obvious, however, that this style is intentional and not the work of an incompetent celluloid butcher. We’re supposed to be yanked about in this fashion and thankfully, in spite of the obtrusive, almost obvious nature of the individual edits, most of the scenes between cuts have a steady (at times plodding) pace. Clearly this is an attempt to provide a sense of the futility and delusion experienced by Hitler and his officers. It often works, but it’s so overused that it sometimes becomes numbing. But again, the numbing quality might well be intentional.
The second major clunky device is the constant use of archival footage from the period (some of it obviously culled from Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”). It is used in an often annoyingly obvious fashion. An example of this is when Hitler is working on an architectural design and his squeeze, Eva Braun (Doris Kunstmann in a great performance to rival Guinness) offers the following lament: “What a pity for the world you couldn’t have devoted your life to art.” (If this isn’t a great line of dialogue, especially in context, then I don’t know what is.) Hitler replies with some nonsense about trying to build a great Germany and we are then treated to a montage of bombed-out German cities (including Dresden).
This is clearly the stuff of sledgehammers, but in fairness, this same criticism can be leveled against many films people admire – especially Italian cinema of a political nature (Lina Wertmuller, anyone?). The problem here is that the sledgehammer is used a bit too often.
It is natural at this point, I suppose, for someone to ask why then, is “Hitler: The Last Ten Days” a good picture and worthy of any attention at all? My answer to such a question might not be all that compelling or convincing, but it is, I believe, the most honest answer I can muster – the picture’s very strangeness solidifies it as a work that deserves some attention, if not further serious study. It’s also, at least to date, the best film to tackle the subject matter (including the plodding, humourless, overrated “Downfall”). Yes, it’s odd, but how could it not be? This is, after all, an attempt to give us a sense of those last few days in the life of a madman and his devoted followers.
The craft employed is often impeccable – from magnificent production design to the exquisite cinematography of Ennio (“Garden of the Finzi-Continis”) Guarnieri. Deep blacks, occasionally punctured by the fuzzy glow of subterranean exposed bulbs contribute greatly to the atmosphere of decay and desolation. While adherence to “reality” is not always necessary in a motion picture – especially one as strange as this – Guarnieri in particular, creates a dank, oppressive world that makes the seemingly implausible starkly plausible.
At the beginning of the film there are two inter-titles utilized to prepare us for the “accuracy” of what we’re about to see. One is from the noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and the other is Gerhardt Boldt who wrote the book upon which the film is based, “The Last Days of the Chancellery”. The former claims with authority and irrefutability that the film is historically accurate. The latter claims it is based solidly upon Boldt’s eyewitness account. In both cases, these statements seem unnecessary since director Ennio De Concini’s hand is felt so very strongly throughout.
Whether the picture is working like clockwork or even when it’s stumbling, the mise-en-scene is always distinctive and definitely interested in creating an atmosphere, a tone and even, if you will, a poetic quality that the notion of historical accuracy feels completely out of place. That said, the directorial hand is so evident, that even these inter-titles might well be a gesture (albeit ham-fisted) of irony, or perhaps, even satire. Besides, the “expert” testimony, in light of what happened ten years after the film was produced, seems far from irrefutable. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation as a scholar would eventually be tarnished by his mistaken authentication of the (clearly forged) “Hitler diaries” discovered in the 80s. Now if this was something director De Concini could have foretold, then the use of the Trevor-Roper endorsement of the film’s accuracy might have taken on some added perverse punch.
That said, the picture is perverse-a-plenty – especially when it revs up in the final half hour when all appears lost and Hitler bestows gifts of cyanide capsules to his loyal followers and Eva Braun delivers a blackface Jolson tribute to uplift everyone’s spirits. A particular delight is when all of Hitler’s loyal followers light cigarettes and down schnapps after Dolph bites the bullet – especially hilarious since we’re told on more than one occasion of Hitler’s hatred for both tobacco and alcohol. Even earlier scenes showing some officers and even Eva Braun herself sneaking an occasional smoke or belt of booze behind Der Fuhrer’s befuddled back rate high on the wacko-meter. And of course, my personal favourite is when the bunker’s chef proclaims that she’ll gas herself in an oven instead of resorting to cyanide and she is reminded that her appliances are electric.
This is the stuff cinema was meant for.
Again, many have condemned the film as misguided and incompetent. I strongly disagree. De Concini did not, sadly, have a prolific career as a director – in fact, this picture might well have been the nail in that particular coffin. However, De Concini had an extremely prolific and heralded calling as one of Italy’s finest screenwriters. His credits included Sergio Leone’s “Colossus of Rhodes”, Mario Bava’s “Black Sunday” and, among many others, the Oscar-winning screenplay of the immortal comedy “Divorce – Italian Style” which launched the international romantic screen duo of Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. The bottom line is this – De Concini was no slouch and every strange perverse touch in “Hitler: The Last Ten Days” feels like it came from his fevered and often good-humoured talent. It is this dark humour that keeps the inevitable proceedings buoyant and downright compelling.
That said, it is also a film infused with tremendous sadness.
After watching “Hitler: The Last Ten Days”, I was reminded of an incident from a few years ago when all the tabloids were aflutter with the news that NHL-WHA hockey great Robert Marvin (Bobby) Hull was quoted as saying that Hitler “had quite a few good ideas”. This was later revealed to be the result of misquotation and contextual chicanery (on the part of the much-raking journalists), but I still couldn’t help but think about the sheer, mouth-agape stupidity/audacity of the notion that Hitler “had quite a few good ideas”. Clearly, his ideas were far from “good”, but for a time, sadly and horrifyingly, they worked.
How then, while watching a film like “Hitler: The Last Ten Days” are we to have any pity, sympathy or empathy for the title character? Well, we can’t, of course. De Concini, and certainly his star, Alec Guinness, must have been well aware of this. Taking on the subject matter at all – especially in the manner in which it is presented – takes both artistry and commitment to artistic expression, even when the truth is mediated to create a reality as perverse as what is on display in this picture.
Thankfully, we get to see the disintegration of Hitler’s “good ideas”. We see how small, how puny, how petty his goals, dreams and aspirations were. We see how utterly banal and bourgeois he and his followers were, and in this banality we see evil unravel and ultimately dissipate – as it should, as it must.
We hear again and again (and rightly so) that we must never forget Hitler’s evil, but this is a picture that goes a step further and forces us not to forget the utter stark banality from which this evil sprouts and how weak and ultimately unsound it always has been and always will be.
“Hitler: The Last Ten Days” rubs our noses in Hitler’s tawdry banality. It does so with great audacity and conviction. And that, finally, for all the picture’s flaws, is what makes it worthwhile.
“Hitler: The Last Ten Days” is available on DVD from Legend Films.