Hitler may have been a monster, but his rise from penniless bohemian painter to magnetic yet despotic leader of Nazi Germany has captured the imagination of many filmmakers. Still, portrayals of Hitler on the silver screen have provoked controversy, as makers of these movies have sometimes been accused of humanizing the man behind the extermination of millions of Jewish people.
On screen, the Führer has been seen in several guises – from troubled young artist, to powerful leader, to defiant but weary man facing certain defeat. Read on for ten of the most memorable Hitler portrayals, both purely fictional and semi-biographical.
Image: YouTube/Alexandru Mortimer
10. Martin Wuttke – Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino has been praised for his unique takes on the gangster and martial arts genres with Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, respectively. His 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds flips a World War II story into a multi-pronged, typically violent Tarantino assassination plot. The film involves a Jewish-American brigade of renegade soldiers, led by one Aldo Raine – played by Brad Pitt – vying with a theater owner to kill high-up Nazi politicians, including Hitler himself. With signature Tarantino audacity, the plan is somewhat successful, and Hitler himself is shot and killed. In this movie, Martin Wuttke plays Hitler, and his portrayal of the Führer as a cape-wearing maniac indignant over the fact that Jews are killing his Aryan supermen earned the German actor and director worldwide attention.
9. Michael Sheard – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
In the third Indiana Jones film, 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harrison Ford’s hero again takes on the Nazis. In an attempt to rescue his father Henry, played by Sean Connery, the fearless archaeologist ends up at a castle on the border of Austria and Germany. He retrieves Henry’s diary, which contains important notes on the whereabouts of the Holy Grail, but unfortunately for Indy, he ends up face to face with Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally. Here, Scottish actor Michael Sheard plays the role of Hitler. The swelling rally crowd carries Indy, disguised in a German Army uniform, directly to the Führer, and he is forced to hand over the diary. Thankfully, Hitler doesn’t recognize that it’s the book the Germans are looking for, and instead of taking it, he signs it and hands it back to the relieved hero.
Image: YouTube/Henrik Schimanski
8. Rudolph Fleischer – Fatherland (1994)
HBO’s 1994 film Fatherland is based on the Robert Harris novel of the same name, in which the Germans have turned Europe into one huge state called “Germania” following World War II – and Hitler is still alive. In the movie, as the Führer prepares to celebrate his 75th birthday, an apparent normalization of relations with the United States under President Joe Kennedy is underway. However, the Germans are also trying to prevent the truth of the Holocaust from reaching the rest of the world. Despite having only three movie credits on his resume, Rudolph Fleischer successfully captures a victorious Hitler whose deranged dream has come to fruition.
Image: YouTube/Uros Cerar
7. Dick Shawn – The Producers (1968)
Comedian Mel Brooks has depicted Hitler several times on screen, and the dictator looms large in his 1968 comedy The Producers. In this cult movie, actor Dick Shawn plays a 1960s-era hippie who portrays the Austrian dictator on stage – in a role within a role. The plot revolves around producer Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel) and his accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), who acquire financing for a play they hope will be a surefire commercial flop; then when it tanks, no one will check the books, and the pair will be free to disappear with all the money they made selling shares in the play. They find a perfect doomed-to-fail play called Springtime for Hitler, written as an apparent “love letter” to the Führer by a former Nazi. However, Shawn’s flower child character Lorenzo St. DuBois (LSD) depicts Hitler as more of a beatnik than the deranged Hitler we’re all used to, and the production is so absurd that the audience interprets it as a riotous form of satire. What’s more, the play becomes a massive hit, thus ruining Bloom and Bialystock’s plan.
6. Noah Taylor – Max (2002)
In the fictional 2002 movie Max, Noah Taylor plays a young Hitler struggling to find his own artistic voice, while John Cusack fills the role of made-up Jewish art dealer Max Rothman. Taylor’s portrayal expresses a man in tumult desperate to follow his dream and become an artist – although he eventually does enter the world of politics. While encouraging Hitler’s talent as a painter, Rothman forms a bond with the future leader based on the pair’s shared experiences as World War I veterans. Like Fatherland, the film explores what could have been: perhaps if Hitler had become a successful artist, he wouldn’t have gone on to take the financial support offered to him by the army and joined the national socialist movement, and so on. Taylor’s performance deftly conveys a young man still trying to determine what he should do with his life.
5. Leonid Mozgovoy – Moloch (1999)
Leonid Mozgovoy plays Hitler in 1999 Russian biographical movie Moloch, which focuses on the Austrian’s companion Eva Braun and the relationship between the two midway through World War II. Braun, played by Yelena Rufanova, waits for Hitler at his Berghof Retreat. Eventually he arrives, along with Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Leonid Sokol), Goebbels’ wife Magda (Yelena Spiridonova) and two other companions. The group discusses everything from food to climate change, and of course they talk about politics during the war period as well. Mozgovoy portrays Hitler as a deranged and arrogant ranter, but the dictator’s interests in opera, dancing, painting, vegetarianism and poetry are also explored, lending him perhaps a more identifiably human side.
Image: YouTube/Daniel Chehrazi
4. David Bamber – Valkyrie (2008)
Valkyrie is a 2008 Brian Singer-directed movie starring Tom Cruise that was saddled with off-screen controversy. This was due in part to Cruise’s involvement with Scientology, which is considered dubious in Germany. The movie itself was based on real-life plot Operation Valkyrie. The operation was originally a contingency plan in case of German civil unrest, but several German Army officers then used it in a modified format to attempt to disarm the SS and kill Hitler. Valkyrie explores the planning and eventual failure of the operation, which involved key plotter Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg, who is played by Cruise. The film also depicts the subsequent vengeance meted out by Hitler on the failed conspirators. British actor David Bamber plays Hitler, and he cuts an alarming figure. One reviewer dubbed Bamber’s portrayal of Hitler “hunched and quietly creepy.”
3. Anthony Hopkins – The Bunker (1981)
Before he became a household name on the back of his legendary portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins was already a critically-acclaimed actor who had scooped several prestigious awards. One award-winning role was his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in the 1981 CBS television movie The Bunker, which sees the leader withdraw to his underground stronghold as the Allies assail the city around him. In the film, Hitler battles feelings of despair and tries in vain to make one last stand, but ultimately the hopelessness of the situation sets in. Hopkins’ performance won him an Emmy Award and was said to be of such power that the actors playing German soldiers immediately became attentive when he was on set.
2. Alec Guinness – Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)
English actor Sir Alec Guinness enjoyed a long and distinguished career, perhaps most famously – at least for today’s audiences – playing aged Jedi Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars films. Before he picked up a lightsaber, though, Guinness played Hitler in the 1973 film Hitler: The Last Ten Days. Directed by Ennio De Concini, the movie used the book Last Days: An Eye-Witness Account as source material. Gerhardt Boldt, who was in Hitler’s bunker during the final days of the war, wrote the book, and the firsthand account lends credence to the movie. Guinness’ portrayal of Hitler has been praised thanks to the actor’s ability to capture Hitler’s mannerisms and sternness, as well as his subtle depiction of a man harboring a rather defeated sense of weariness.
1. Bruno Ganz – Downfall (2004)
Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gave a tour de force of a performance in 2004’s Downfall, which is partly based on a memoir written by the Führer’s youngest secretary Traudl Junge. Again, the movie shows Hitler resigned to his bunker. It also shows how the leader’s realization that he is defeated leads him and new bride Eva Braun (played by Juliane Köhler), whom he marries in the film, to commit suicide before Allied forces can capture them. Prior to its release, Downfall raised debate in the German media over its potential humanization of a monster, but lead actor Ganz was singled out by The New Yorker film critic David Denby, who wrote, “As a piece of acting, Ganz’s work is not just astounding, it’s actually rather moving.” Scenes from the movie have gone on to become parodied internet sensations.