By William Boyd

April 20th 1945. On this day, almost sixty years ago, Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday, in the Fuhrerbunker deep below the Reich Chancellery in a Berlin virtually surrounded by the Russian army, devastated by artillery and heavy bombing. On previous birthdays the custom was that he would be greeted by his personal staff at midnight, but he had given orders that this year he was not to be disturbed. Eva Braun, however, persuaded him otherwise and he grudgingly emerged from his bedroom to accept the congratulations of those few gathered there. Russian troops were by now only miles from the city.  Hitler had 9 days of his life left to him.

Hitler was only 56, yet to those looking on he looked 20 years older, as if he were terminally ill, close to death.  He was described as a ‘ruined hulk of a man’, a stooped, shambling, drooling, incoherent figure.  The last photographs that were taken of Hitler were on this very day when he emerged from the bunker into the Chancellery gardens to present some decorations to the barely adolescent boys of the Hitler Youth now defending Berlin. In the newsreel that was recording the event, Hitler has his hat pulled low and his coat collar up, one hand (his left) is held behind his back. He manages a smile, manages to utter a few words, pats a shoulder, pinches one boy’s cheek.  The whole incident lasts no more than a few minutes before Hitler is, at his own urgent request, ushered down to the bunker again.

I have studied this newsreel many times, freezing the frame and staring at the monochrome image of that puffy, sagging face, with its unkempt grey moustache, knowing that Hitler was probably high on Benzedrine at the time and that he was holding his left hand behind his back because he could not control its constant visible tremor. This was part of months of research I undertook in 2002 for three two-hour films that I had agreed to write about Hitler’s rise to power, covering the twenty years from 1913-1933. The films were never made, as it happened (another long story) but, for me, a key factor in the understanding of that early period was to try and profit from the benefit of hindsight. Knowing how it all fell apart, how it all ended, what befell the various players in the Nazi story helped me understand its perplexing origins – that combination of historical circumstance, ruthless determination, sheer luck and establishment complacency that allowed Hitler to take absolute power. Interestingly enough, even as a young man Hitler thought he would not see a ripe old age: it was one of the explanations for his massive energy. He always felt time would run out for him – but he could never have envisaged this particular nemesis.

It is important to underline just how ill Hitler was in 1945. The fact that he was a very sick man is beyond dispute, though no-one can precisely diagnose what was wrong with him. Much of the evidence points strongly towards Parkinson’s Disease, however. Hitler’s left side seemed far weaker than the right. When he had to stand for any length of time he would wedge his left leg against the wall or a table. His left hand and arm often shook uncontrollably. He frequently seemed to lose his balance and had to clutch at walls and chair backs to support himself. When he lay down on his bed to sleep his valet, Heinz Linge, had to lift his legs up and swing them on to the bed. Other ailments, some genuine, some psychosomatic, afflicted him. At moments of crisis he suffered from intense stomach spasms. The assassination attempt in July 1944 had damaged his eardrums. He fretted constantly about his diet. In late 1944 he had a polyp removed from his throat and a section of his upper jaw cut away to relieve a massive abscess. He thought fresh air was bad for him – referring to it as ‘fresh-air poisoning’ — and preferred the noisome conditions in his underground bunker. All the same, he had to take sleeping pills to ensure some period of rest.  He was quite literally a man at the end of his physical and mental tether.

One of the most remarkable features of the mesmerising new German film Downfall (Die Untergang) is the way that Bruno Ganz, playing Hitler, masterfully embodies this mental decrepitude and physical decline.  Downfall is a film about Hitler’s last twelve days in the bunker, and the subsequent fate of his entourage. Ganz plays Hitler as a crazed, semi-senile fantasist. The film has attracted controversy and drawn some criticism on the grounds that somehow Ganz’s portrayal ‘humanises’ Hitler. That this canard needs to be addressed – and nailed — at all is some indication of the ubiquitous power of political correctness. Hitler was not beamed down to earth from an alien spaceship: it is the fact that he was a human being capable of benign human qualities such as affection, gross sentimentality and charming eccentricity (obsessive cleanliness, for example) that disturbs and chills. That he possessed a sweet tooth, idolised Wagner’s operas, became a teetotal vegetarian, loved dogs, American movies, etcetera, etcetera, make his implacable mania, his cruelty and ruthlessness all the more terrifying and minatory. Ganz’s depiction of Hitler seems to me to be almost uncanny in its accuracy (aided also by the scrupulous realism and fidelity to detail of the film).

The one omission in the portrait that strikes me as strange is to do with this very matter of Hitler’s ill-health. One figure missing from the cast of Downfall is his personal doctor, Dr Theodor Morell.  Other doctors (Stumpfegger, Haase) who attended on Hitler during the final days are portrayed in the film but, unusually, Morell is not. And yet Morell only left the bunker on April 23rd, to flee south to Bavaria by plane, six days before Hitler’s suicide. Furthermore, if any one man was responsible for Hitler’s physical decline it was this bespectacled, portly, fractious, venereal-disease specialist whom Hitler trusted absolutely in matters of his physical well-being and yet whose flagrant quackery was – had Hitler not speeded up the process himself – rushing the Fuhrer towards an early grave.

Dr Morell first treated Hitler in the mid 1930s for his stomach cramps and his success in suppressing them made Hitler absurdly reliant on Morell’s subsequent diagnoses and prescriptions. Morell provided his own patent medicines for Hitler’s stomach problems, pills and potions that Martin Bormann — for one – believed were slowly poisoning the Fuhrer. Morell was dosing Hitler with his own make of ‘anti-gas’ pills (to combat Hitler’s flatulence), sometimes giving him up to sixteen pills a day, pills which contained strychnine, moreover, and there is strong evidence to believe that Hitler was actually succumbing to persistent strychnine poisoning. His sallow skin, his glaucous eyes and his attention lapses all point to a form of toxaemia. However, for one reason or another, Morell seemed to be able to fix Hitler’s problems speedily. But Morell’s irresponsible carelessness went further. Morell was also a morphine addict himself. He regularly injected Hitler (in private) and Hitler’s behaviour, particularly in the bunker, with his sudden mood swings, his moments of intense dynamism, followed by somnolence and inertia exhibit all the signs of morphine dependency.  No one knew what exactly Morell injected Hitler with – and he did not confide the details to the other rival doctors who attended on him — but as far as Hitler was concerned it worked: if he did not have a morphine addiction, he was certainly addicted to Morrell.  Hitler confided to one of his secretaries, Christine Schroeder: ‘These stupid doctors have not been able to help me… If I didn’t have Morell I would be lost.’ Hitler himself stated that only Morell was able to find a vein in his arm. Despite all urgings from his minions to get rid of the man (Morrell seemed universally disliked: Bormann described him as a ‘pain in the neck’ and Eva Braun detested him), Hitler stayed faithful to his sinister doctor until the very end.

On top of Morrell’s unique pharmaceuticals were other more orthodox drugs: Benzedrine for energy and barbiturate sleeping pills, laxatives and opiates. These were more usually administered by Linge, the valet, from the drug cabinet in Hitler’s pokey bedroom. Linge was also charged with giving Hitler his eyedrops, a solution laced with ten percent of cocaine. I’m not sure if this was to stimulate him or dull his persistent headaches. During the last two weeks of April he was apparently demanding the cocaine eyedrops ten times a day. There is no doubt that in his final weeks of life Hitler was a fizzing cocktail of competing chemicals – a man almost literally drugging himself to death.

Knowledge of all this information makes Ganz’s brilliantly pitched performance appear even more compelling – though we see virtually nothing of Hitler’s drug consumption in the film. One of the great attractions and – thereby – the great problems of filming the bunker and the endgame of the Third Reich is its very theatricality. This extraordinary cast of characters all gathered together in this subterranean concrete rathole, watching the ticking clock of their mortality counting down, is like something out of Euripides crossed with Sartre or Beckett. The scenes played out in this purgatorial huis clos are horrifyingly watchable but the experience is a little akin to reading the final chapter of a book without knowing what has come before.  There is nothing the filmmakers of Downfall can or need do about this, it has to be said: their creative remit to themselves is clear and shapely, and they serve it superbly well. But the fact remains that the last few weeks of Hitler’s life saw both a coming together and a resolution of various highly complicated relationships and interrelated personal narratives that began, in some cases, a quarter of a century earlier. Therefore, unless you are familiar with the back-story, then the dénoument, however riveting, is not going to be fully nuanced and will be unable deliver its maximum impact.

Eva Braun, for instance, is a key presence in the film yet her personality and role in Hitler’s life is hard to grasp. She was a shop-assistant in Hitler’s personal photographer’s studio when they first met in the early 1930s. After Hitler’s niece, Geli Raubal, — the one true love of his life — committed suicide in 1931 he appears to have turned for comfort and consolation to another young blonde — Eva Braun, who was, like Geli, two decades younger than Hitler.  Eva Braun also attempted suicide in 1932 and shortly after – Hitler fearing further scandal — was installed as his companion. Her role was decorative and social and, as far as one can judge, fairly soon there seems to have been no further carnal interest on Hitler’s part. Interestingly enough, her closeness to him was completely unknown to the German people. Eva Braun was – to be blunt — an amiable, pretty airhead who had no problems being confined to the margins of Hitler’s life. Albert Speer commented: ‘For all writers of history, Eva Braun is going to be a disappointment’.

Eventually, she arrived fairly late in the Bunker — coming from Berchtesgaden to Berlin, against Hitler’s orders in March 1945 — and moved irrevocably in on April 15th. Her devotion to him was absolute and unreflecting: her only act of defiance was to sneak a cigarette from time to time (smoking was a habit Hitler detested: ‘The smell of tobacco makes women very unattractive,’ he once said to his sister-in-law, a dedicated smoker herself). Hitler’s decision to marry Eva Braun just before their suicide pact seems to have taken everyone by surprise.

Similarly with the Goebbels family. Joseph Goebbels, his wife Magda and their six children (aged between 5 and 12, one boy, five girls) arrived in the bunker on April 22nd. The children’s lively presence, their charm, the sense of ‘fun’ that they brought with them as they scampered up and down the corridors, sang and played games, added another bizarre element to the grotesque surreality of the place. Frequently presented as the ‘first family’ of the Reich, the blond Goebbels children were almost a parodic example of Teutonic eugenics. Yet Magda Goebbels and her husband loathed each other with a passionate and bitter intensity. The saurian, club-footed Goebbels had always been a serial womaniser; Magda herself had affairs and when in 1939 she demanded a divorce (provoked by Goebbels’ intense relationship with the actress Lida Baarova) and declared that she wanted to marry her lover Karl Hanke (a senior Nazi party official), Hitler himself was obliged to intervene. It was Hitler who pleaded with Magda to return to her repulsive husband and ordered that Lida Baarova be banished from Germany within 24 hours – which she duly was, never to see her craven lover again. Furthermore, Hitler oversaw and witnessed the drawing up of a document that gave Magda not only the right to divorce Goebbels at any time if she so decided, but also custody of their six children, the family estate, Schwanenwerder, and the guarantee of a substantial income for life. On the basis of this, and because of her devotion to Hitler, she agreed to a de facto reconciliation and the ostensible unity of the ‘first family’ was maintained. Magda’s victory and control over her husband was complete and total.

All this is the backdrop to one of the most shocking and disturbing acts that the bunker was to witness.  After Hitler’s suicide on April 29th, Magda Goebbels first drugged her six children and killed them all, crushing ampoules of prussic acid between their teeth. This provides one of the film’s most distressing scenes, yet it is an understanding of the Goebbels’ own abiding mutual hatred that makes Magda’s cool infanticide all the more complex and distressing. It has to be seen also as a deliberate act of revenge on her rebarbative husband as well as a form of morbid delusion: she wasn’t prepared to live in a world without Hitler and she was going to make sure, unilaterally, that her children were not either.  Time and again moments in the bunker – Fegelein’s execution, Speer’s farewell to Hitler, Eva Braun’s hysterical gaiety, Himmler’s betrayal – require the historical prelude to provide the full dramatic catharsis they so clearly held for the participants.

For, as dramatically compelling as the ghoulish bunker endgame is, the real, baffling story about Hitler, it seems to me, was how he got there – as it were. How did someone who, in the years before the First World War, was a semi-deranged, penniless derelict in Vienna end up, some twenty years later, as the Chancellor of the German nation? How was it that someone so utterly nondescript, so personally negligible, could hold the German people in thrall for so many years? The fascinating quandary about Hitler was that he never really changed. He was, in my opinion, clearly as deranged when he was a Viennese down-and-out in 1913 as he was in 1945. The mania, the obsessions, the modus operandi never really altered through the 27 years of his political life. The man who wrote Mein Kampf in prison in 1924 had already elaborated the theories of racial hatred and extermination that were put into baleful practise during the war. Nothing, in short, should have come as any surprise – the signs were clearly there to be read for those so inclined.

Hitler’s diffident ordinariness impressed itself on those who met him at the beginning of his political career. Putzi Hanfstaengl, who acted as press attaché for the foundling Nazi party in the 1920s, memorably described him thus: ‘When I met him… he was a minor political agitator, a frustrated ex-serviceman, awkward in a blue serge suit. He looked like a suburban hairdresser on his day off.’ Another associate liked to picture him as the headwaiter of a provincial railway station restaurant. The point is made over and over again: he was, as the French would say, un nul. And yet this nobody was responsible for death and destruction on an unparalleled scale.  The great achievement of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler is that we see absolutely clearly the suburban hairdresser in him. Hitler was elaborately over-polite to women — to the most unctuous and irritating degree. As a young man he kept a small collection of pornography discreetly wrapped in the covers of cheap Wild West novels – nothing prepares us for the overarching ambition, the reckless dreams of conquest and power.

Beside this, there is the matter of Fuhrerkontact — that palpable, stirring frisson of awe and excitement this diminutive and physically unprepossessing man seemed to provoke in people. Of course the office itself contributes to this effect. A completely average person becomes President of the United States, for instance, (or Princess of Wales, for that matter) and the world loses its reason, its sense of perspective and judgement. But Hitler, greatly aided by his mythmakers, no doubt, did seem able both to cow battle-hardened generals and impose himself on the intellectually capable. Speer described it as a kind of auto-suggestion, using the German word horig to explain the phenomenon – a word which describes a range of emotions from willing servility to bowel-slackening helplessness.

Therefore, the great challenge for anyone portraying Hitler on screen is that he somehow has to try to convey this dual aspect of the man. Recently, both Robert Carlyle and Ken Stott have managed to incarnate this quality of the petit-bourgeois bore cum demonic seer in their roles in, respectively,Hitler: The Rise of Evil (2003) and Uncle Adolf (2005). But Alec Guinness (in Hitler: The Last Ten Days 1973) and Anthony Hopkins (in The Bunker 1981) somehow could not eradicate or eclipse their own particular screen personae from their impersonation. Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator(1940), had his own contemporary satiric agenda – or, perhaps, unconscious others. The critic David Thompson advances this notion with some cogency: ‘Was Chaplin’s common man so far from Hitler? He [also] spoke to disappointment, brutalised feelings and failure.’ The difference being that the little tramp was a complete disguise (there was nothing ordinary about the vastly complex individual that was Chaplin). Hitler’s drabness, his mediocrity, was an immoveable character trait.

And, if this was true of Hitler, it was equally true of his close subordinates in the Nazi party. Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Hess, von Ribbentrop, Ley and the others were all undistinguished losers or gangsters to a man. Only Albert Speer can lay any claim to being cut from superior cloth, but when one considers Goering, the failed parachute salesman and drug addict; Goebbels, the embittered cripple and failed academic; Himmler, the failed chicken farmer; Bormann, the thuggish convicted murderer — then the old sneer about politics being ‘showbiz for ugly people’ seems particularly apt when applied to the leading Nazis.

However, Bruno Ganz’s Hitler starts with an unbeatable advantage. Downfall is a German film with German actors and the advantage gained in verisimilitude is unsurpassable. Ganz’s German accent (with a tinge of Austrian) and the growly vocal cadences he imitates are impeccably accurate. The whole paraphernalia of the teetering, terminal grandeur of the Reich – the vanity, the bombast and the vulgarity at the core – is brilliantly served by being rendered in German.

Thus, conceivably, this is why there have been so few Hitlers filmed. Excepting G.W Pabst’s Der Letste Akt (1956) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s massive and uncategorisable Hitler: a Film from Germany(1977) – the German film industry has been understandably reluctant to tackle the subject until this moment. And the moment is triumphantly, unsettlingly effective. English-language Hitlers, perhaps, are bound to lose something quintessential in translation.  

This article was published in the Guardian in March 2005