BERLIN — After decades of watching foreign filmmakers putting English-speaking Adolf Hitlers on the screen and casting other non-Germans with faux German accents as top Nazis, German producers have at last begun to tiptoe into the dark chapter of their own history, and they’ve discovered fertile ground for pics.
Casting off their own self-imposed ban on producing dramas about Third Reich protagonists because the nightmarish era was considered too sensitive for Germans to touch, local filmmakers suddenly are finding Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goering and other Nazi leaders to be rich material for cinematic exploitation. Until recently, Germans were only comfortable with documentaries or films on the Nazis’ victims.
A number of German-made dramas about top Nazis, made by Germans born long after Hitler killed himself, will be sweeping across the country beginning next year — timed to coincide with the looming 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2005.
Constantin topper Bernd Eichinger, producer and screenwriter of “The Downfall,” about Hitler’s final 12 days in his infamous Berlin bunker in 1945, tells Variety, “There were people who came up to me and said, ‘You can’t do this film, you shouldn’t do it.’ They said I would probably get applauded by the wrong side. But I thought those were silly arguments.
“I thought it was absolutely necessary to make this film. It’s a grim tale. It’s a fascinating story, a collapse of all civilization — why didn’t they stop? Why did these people keep going when all was lost?”
Eichinger’s epic, which has drawn some comparisons to Wolfgang Petersen’s pioneering 1981 “Das Boot,” about an ill-fated German submarine crew, has a budget of E13.5 million ($15 million), making it one of Germany’s most expensive films ever.
Based on a leading German historian’s bestseller and the autobiography of Hitler’s secretary, “The Downfall” is being filmed in St. Petersburg and Munich.
Swiss thesp Bruno Ganz, who plays Hitler, has admitted he probably could not have stomached the role if he were German.
“When you grow up in Germany, you have (the lingering impact of the Nazi past) everywhere,” says Eichinger, one of Germany’s leading producers. He was born in 1949 and, like most Germans, has spent a lifetime fielding questions about the Nazis. He said he had been reading about the Hitler era, and mulling a film, for 20 years.
“I always thought it was ridiculous to hear Hitler or Goebbels speaking English,” he says of the numerous films on Hitler made abroad. “I think authenticity is vital.”
Eichinger says there is no legitimate reason why Germans, more than half a century after the Nazis’ rise and fall, should ban themselves from attempting these films. “Every nation has to look at their own history sooner or later. Shouldn’t Americans be able to make films about the Vietnam war?”
“I think the time is ripe for Germans to make films looking at the top Nazis, and Eichinger is the right man to break the ice,” says Jurgen Schau, head of global entertainment at Sony Pictures in Berlin. “It’s a welcome new approach — looking at German history without the burdens of guilt or fears of glorifying the Nazi past. It shows German filmmakers are now confident to tackle historical pictures. I think we’re seeing a new awakening.”
While “The Downfall” is certainly the grandest and boldest illustration of the trend, several other productions also reflect the newfound courage in Germany to focus on sinister characters in the Third Reich. There was, of course, never a shortage of German documentaries on Hitler nor a dearth of films focusing on Nazi victims.
“Rosenstrasse” by director Margarethe von Trotta recently won a best actress award for Katja Riemann at the Venice film festival. Von Trotta’s based-on-history portrayal of Aryan wives of Jewish detainees has won critical acclaim and good box office in Germany since it debuted in September.
For a telepic about Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, a German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler, parts of Berlin were turned into a Third Reich microcosm, complete with Nazi banners, heel-clicking officers and even swastika-branded motorcycle sidecars buzzing alongside modern taxis. It was an unsettling sight for thousands of Berlin residents unaware it was all for a movie, expected to air on ARD next summer.
The first German-made comedy about the Nazis premiered on German TV last winter, shattering a half-century-old taboo in Germany against mocking the era that other directors had long poked fun at. “Goebbels and Geduldig,” a 90-minute farce about Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and a Jewish concentration camp inmate who looks enough like him to be his twin, was a critical and ratings debacle. Many said it simply wasn’t funny. But it was without doubt a pioneering effort.
An earlier German attempt in 1999 to put top Nazis on the screen was a box office flop. “Nothing but the Truth” focused on a hypothetical modern-day trial of Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele for his cruel experiments.
“We’ve moved beyond the era of guilt and shame,” Schau says. “I’m certain we’re going to see many more films about German history made in Germany.”