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Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)

Shiny Happy Hitler Holding Hostages

"I'm goin' to Hell for that bit, and you're all comin' with me!"

--Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer

I have no idea how to approach Hitler: The Last Ten Days. Directed by Ennio De Concini and co-adapted from Gerhardt Boldt's book The Last Days of the Chancellery with Maria Pia Fusco, Wolfgang Reinhardt, and Ivan Moffat, the 1973 drama commands our attention by placing Sir Alec Guinness in Adolf Hitler's shoes. Perhaps it's a generational thing (or run-of-the-mill arrested development), but I could not, for the life of me, take this film seriously. I did, however, enjoy it to the nth degree and wholeheartedly recommend it as one of the most deranged black comedies of this or any decade.*

With its soft lighting; odd, comfy-furniture-in-a-grey-bunker sets; and skit-like scene punctuation, The Last Ten Days plays like a sitcom version of The Twilight Zone's "It's a Good Life" episode, as directed by Christopher Guest and conceived by Mel Brooks. Every actor in this fine cast plays it completely straight, but they've been tasked with bringing tragically ridiculous events to life. With each passing minute, the situations grow darker and more bizarre, and picking a favorite is like shuffling cards for a Second City improv game:

  • Hitler's birthday party
  • Hitler's advisors and their spouses one-upping each other's suicide fantasies
  • Hitler sending a stack of autographed pictures to the children he's ordered to take on British forces
  • Hitler answering questions about his genetic purity during a hasty wedding to Eva Braun (Doris Kunstmann)
  • The drunken orgy in which Braun entertains Hitler's generals with a blackface song-and-dance routine

Taking into account the countless dead people across several psychically wounded continents, none of the real-world events that inspired this movie are even remotely funny. De Concini tries to drive home the sadness of a crazy person's unchecked power by inserting archival footage of bombings, death camps, and the Nazi's own decimated forces--but the effect is often that of a comic-strip punch line panel:

Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels (John Bennett) proclaims that if anyone in Berlin raises the flag of surrender, The Führer will level the entire city. Cut to dozens of white sheets flapping in doorways. Hitler orders the subway system (which now functions as a makeshift hospital) to be flooded as a way to keep the Soviets from penetrating his underground bunker. Cut to photos of wet, decayed bodies being hauled out of tunnels. Cut back to Hitler whining that the subway thing didn't work out.

For his part, Guinness is absolutely mesmerizing in the role of history's greatest flesh-and-blood monster. His German accent was mostly missing in action, often giving me a weird mental image of Obi-Wan Kenobi playing Dark Side Dress-up, but the intensity, madness, and eloquence were all there, all the time. Even in the little bit of background we get on Hitler at the beginning, there's no indication of just how a raving lunatic could seduce and enslave an entire nation; Guinness' performance suggests that Hitler was an uncontainable force created by insecurity, fostered by political squeamishness, and spurred on by the adoration he failed to find as "a moody Austrian agitator and painter". 

The final fifteen minutes of The Last Ten Days are truly, un-ironically great. With the Russians closing in, Hitler's inner circle prepares for the worst. Hitler and Braun engage in a revelatory argument for the ages, in which the dictator exposes himself as a fraud who knew he'd lost the war two years earlier. Guinness and Kunstmann at last play human beings, instead of cackling, screaming, shifty-eyed villains, and I marvelled at how many lives might have been saved had Adolf Hitler been born in the Surveillance Age.

We still live in a world of genocide, dictators, and buffoonish politicians who pander to soft-brained constituencies of xenophobes. It's a lot easier, at least, to keep an eye on them. The great lesson of The Last Ten Days may be that I can laugh at a dramatization of horrific cowards turning on each other and spiraling into insanity. Hitler's grand-scale atrocities are inconceivable to those of us whose first impression of him was as a cartoon character getting punched out by Captain America, or as the little-seen big bad in an Indiana Jones movie. I wonder if that evolving generational disconnect, that pop-cultural erosion of collective sense memory, will make it impossible for such madness to sweep the globe again, or if it's the gateway to more horrors. In his final hours, Hitler is said to have proclaimed that his rightful successor wouldn't show up for a hundred years. Sounds about right, if we're not careful.

*I would hope that a disclaimer regarding my cellular-level disapproval of the Nazis is unnecessary, but for anyone who feels they need one--there it is.

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