Niall Anderson looks at ten cinematic Hitlers and the careers of the men who played him, working out what their changing portrayals say about the rest of us.
1. Konparu Minamizato
Film portrayals of Hitler begin with an enigma: a short Japanese film whose title is taken from a valedictory speech by Olympic gold medal equestrian and soldier Takeichi Nishi: ‘Ten takaku Hinomaru agete uma kaeru’/’The horse returns after raising the Japanese flag sky high’.
Almost nothing is known about Uma Kaeru (1935), except that it seems to have been a formal, playlike three-hander, and that the portrayal of Hitler was the second and last film performance of actor Konparu Minamizato.
More interesting is the connection with Takeichi Nishi. The illegitimate playboy son of a Tokyo baron, he paid his own fare (and that of his horse) to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. Having won gold, he became friendly with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and was popularly known in the American press as Baron Nishi. He was drafted back to the Japanese army after the Olympics, and died during the defence of Iwo Jima in 1945. Nishi is portrayed by Korean actor Tsuyoshi Ihara in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, where he is depicted as taking his own life.
2. Carl Ekberg
Starting with his second film Citizen Kane (1941) and ending with his last, What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? (1966), Carl Ekberg portrayed Hitler five times – always uncredited.
Indeed, Ekberg’s CV generally makes for depressing reading: when he wasn’t playing Hitler he was playing ‘German cook’, ‘German guard’, ‘SS Man’, ‘German Fighting in Water’, and, in 1948’s Berlin Express, simply ‘German’. He remained uncredited throughout his career, but his appearance in a number of historic films (he was in Fritz Lang’s Manhunt and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, as well as Kane) has given him a certain amount of posthumous recognition.
3. Bobby Watson
Citizen Kane was the first time Hitler had appeared in an American film; 1942’s short The Devil With Hitler was the second, and it introduced a new tone to portrayals of Hitler. He was now a power-crazed buffoon, and Bobby Watson was the ideal buffoon for the job. Watson would play Hitler nine times in his career – more than anyone else to date.
A famous vaudevillian, Watson parlayed his dauntless gift for physical comedy (and his willingness to both drag-up and black-up) into a lengthy film and TV career. His last film, 1962’s The 4 Horsemen of The Apocalypse saw him play Hitler again, but this time in quiet earnest – a sign of changing times.
4. Mel Blanc
Following America’s entry to the Second World War, portrayals of Hitler still erred on the side of silliness, but now the genuine threat of Nazism was played up. This is nowhere clearer than in the five Looney Tunes cartoons made between 1943 and 1944 that deal with Hitler, with Mel Blanc voicing The Führer each time.
1944’s Russian Rhapsody is the most obviously political of the bunch. Originally titled ‘Gremlins From The Kremlin’, it begins with Hitler announcing his decision to personally fly a bomber to Moscow. His journey is interrupted by a team of gremlins who begin to dismantle his plane in flight. The gremlins are played by the core Looney Tunes staff (Blanc, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Leon Schlesinger and others) and ends with one of the gremlins sledgehammering The Führer into the ground. It doesn’t really get more political than that.
5. Billy Frick
The sheer number of portrayals of Hitler falls in the immediate post-war years, before The Führer begins to raise his head again in the early 60s.
Even in this context, Billy Frick deserves notice: except for a role as Percival in Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill (1964), he appears to only have played Hitler in his entire film career. What’s more, he’d been known to dress socially as Hitler while The Führer was still alive. In 1971 the satirical magazine Pardon sent him to the Frankfurt Book Fair as Hitler, which resulted in him being chased from pavilion to pavilion, being beaten and spat on, until he was eventually arrested for his own protection. He professed himself disappointed not to have been lynched, and ended his career playing Hitler again in 1977’s Nazis dans le Metro, about which the title is easily the best thing.
6. Henri Tisot
By the start of the 70s, there were cinematic Führers from all nations, but a French Hitler was still a rarity. Comedian Henri Tisot earns his place not just by dint of nationality, but by the fact that his most famous previous character was Charles de Gaulle
7. Narciso Ibáñez Menta
By contrast with the French, there were dozens of Spanish or Spanish-language Hitlers. Narciso Ibáñez Menta stands out because he was mostly known for his work in cheap horror films, and also because the 1970 miniseries in which he played Hitler, El monstruo no ha muerto/The Monster is not Dead, seems to be the first fiction to posit the idea that Hitler fled to South America at the end of the war (thus trumping Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil by six years).
It’s often said that the rash of paranoid thrillers produced in the 70s were a direct comment on Watergate and the disinformation campaigns of the Vietnam war, but that seems a very rational and unparanoid response. In reality, a reservoir of paranoia had been building up since the start of the Cold War, and its first showings were in slightly bonkers New World Order fictions like El monstruo no ha muerto.
8. Anthony Hopkins in The Bunker
Really, this needn’t be Anthony Hopkins. It could be Alec Guinness, Derek Jacobi, Stephen Berkoff or Ian McKellen – all of whom have donned the totalitarian tache at some point. The point is that as the 50th anniversary of the war approached, Hitler became the province of a certain kind of actor (usually British) and a certain kind of dramatic approach.
That approach was the internal and psychological, and with its unflinching concentration on events below ground as the European war ground to its end, The Bunker sums the trend up better than most. After countless adventure films in which the Nazi menace was seen as being a thing to be cheerfully overcome, the Nazis (and Hitler in particular) had now become prestigious subject matter – award bait for actors of a certain age.
9. Michael Sheard
There will always be the odd throwback, of course. Michael Sheard’s uncredited appearance in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade marks possibly the last time Hitler was played for laughs in a mainstream film – albeit laughs of the winky-wanky-woo Tom Stoppard variety.
Best known for his role as tyrannical teacher Mr Bronson in long-running BBC TV serial Grange Hill, Sheard’s portrayal of Hitler has made him into a kind of human trivia question. Less well known is that fact that The Last Crusade was the fifth time Sheard had played Hitler, and that when he wasn’t playing Hitler he was often playing other Nazis: he’d also done Hermann Goering (in Allo Allo) and Heinrich Himmler (opposite Alec Guinness’s Hitler in The Last Ten Days).
10. Robert Carlyle in The Rise of Evil
An undistinguished note to end on, perhaps, but how many of these films have been genuinely distinguished? The Rise of Evil (2003) is notable because it marks the beginning of a new dramatic approach to Hitler – what we might call the ‘where did it all come from, was he abused as a boy?’ approach.
This wasn’t an entirely new way of looking at The Führer (see Beryl Bainbridge’s 1978 novel Young Adolf for an early example), but The Rise of Evil was quickly joined by a rash of speculative films and books about Hitler’s early days – among them Norman Mailer’s last novel, The Castle In The Forest, which posits Hitler’s early days as a struggle between his love of bees, his hatred of his father, and the occasional intervention of Satan.
It was almost as if at the dawn of a new century – one that already promised to be as barbarous as the last – people were taking stock of the 20th century’s key event and wondering if it had been decided from the cradle. Hitler has been tabloidised and caricatured many times, but the dull acceptance of him as a wrong’un from birth seems like a tabloidisation too far.