Alan Morrison on

The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973)
Written by Vincent Tilsley
Directed by Rex Firkin
Starring Frank Finlay as Hitler
Network DVD, 2009

Finlay's Definitive Fuhrer

For those of you have seen the morbidly engrossing German film Downfall but might wish for a more theatrical, studio-based companion piece to the same doom-laden scenario, The Death of Adolf Hitler is an absolute must-see. I actually fished it out from Amazon a year ago, prior to its belated British release, as a Region 1 import, but was tempted into investing in a more strikingly packaged UK version since it is such an astonishing piece of drama. This is mainly due to a truly towering performance from the extraordinary-looking actor Frank Finlay, who was, particularly in the early to mid Seventies, a ubiquitous character face on British television, playing in a relatively short period such diverse roles as the lead in Dennis Potter’s adaptation of Casanova, the sugar-daddy publisher Peter Manson in the achingly middle-class but brilliantly nuanced Bouquet of Barbed Wire/Another Bouquet, Van Helsing in the masterly TV adaptation of Dracula, and, of course, as Adolf Hitler in this slightly lesser known LWT production. That said, Finlay was regarded at the time as the most terrifying portrayal of the Fuhrer to date, and in spite of Bruno Ganz’s mesmerizingly choreographed, somewhat battle-weary interpretation in Downfall, for me Finlay’s even more raving, almost rabid realisation of the most notorious dictator in history is still the most terrifying of all. One is only relieved throughout Finlay’s hysterical performance by the urge to laugh out loud at the almost proto-Fawlty turns in his various rages: at the first news of dissent among his once-loyal henchmen Goering and Himmler, Finlay will start with a forbidding mumble, even a slight dignity of restraint as matched by his clenched side-parting, then suddenly smash a tray of crockery and storm out into the main room of the bunker hysterically announcing that ‘Herman Goering is your new leader’, pacing up and down screaming with incandescent fury, flailing his fists in the air and gritting his teeth like a lunatic, with a cartoon-like speed of expression which is frightening as it is perversely hilarious to watch. The script plays these blackly comical aspects to excellent effect, the sheer fatuity of such lines from the Fuhrer as wanting one of his absent officers to come to him ‘personally... in person’, while visibly oblivious to the verbal tautology of what he’s just said. This sending-up of practically the darkest figure in history is as expertly done as the best-written comedies of the time – but does nothing to diminish the essential drama of the piece. Finlay’s intense effort to will himself into one of the most darkly challenging parts is palpable and exceptional and must rank as one of the most convincing performances of anyone by anyone in the whole television and film canon. Startling. That Finlay’s brief fling with leading roles on television petered out later on into supporting roles in second-rate adventure films (The Three Musketeers, The Wild Geese) is one of the great mysteries of the acting profession for me. That he manages to bring such compellingly demonic energy to a part already extensively portrayed before him by the likes of Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, even parodied by Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), yet still stand out as peerless, is a tribute to Finlay's supreme acting ability (a later fleeting Hitler, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, mutely pinning a medal on Harrison Ford in the middle of the Nuremberg Ralley, the consumate Michael Sheard, is seen here too, this time as the bespectacled, taciturn Himmler - but Sheard had appeared before as cryogenically defrosted Hitler in an episode of The Tomorrow People, who was revealed to be the alien criminal Neebor from the planet Vashig; he also went on to play the rather Himmlerish Mr. Bronson in Grange Hill).

The Death of Adolf Hitler is also perhaps the politically bravest Hitlerian adaptation to have reached the screen (moreso than the film Max which focuses on a younger Hitler as an impoverished artist, and elicits initially - though not later on - some sense of sympathy with this predicament): in one haunting scene the half-asleep Fuhrer returns in his mind to his days sleeping in the Austrian gutters, apparently, as depicted here, preyed on by usurious food-touts and belittling prostitutes (‘You’re not a man, but you have a way with you’), all portrayed as explicitly Jewish. Here is a controversial attempt to try and get to grips with the irrational roots of his obsessive anti-Semitism, and while it makes for uncomfortable viewing, one can only admire Vincent Tilsley’s determined courage in throwing a torch-light on a precariously empathetic approach to Hitler’s psychological makeup. Equally curious is a grisly scene in which a concentration camp Doctor (a side-shaven Ray McNally) eulogises on the fineness of a lampshade made from flayed Jewish skin, which visibly repels the Fuhrer, hinting at his own sensitive stomach regarding the gruesome realities of experiments in his own regime’s death camps, and he promptly storms out and vomits into a sink. A hint of guilt to Hitler? Of shame? Of self-disgust? The implication seems to be that Tilsley’s Hitler seethes with a hatred of Jews carved completely out of the abstract, and has no interest in or taste for the sadistic anti-Semitic appetites of his thuggish disciples; like a Satan disgusted by his own demons, this is a compelling and multi-layered characterisation. The abstractedness of Hitler’s disposition is also illuminated brilliantly in scenes when he is poring his architectural fantasies over a miniature model of his planned Nazi capital, all paper Doric columns in the classical style; or when he prays to his own shadow alluding to it as their ‘master’. This aspect is left tantalisingly ambiguous also in that he does not specify that it is the Christian God. Finlay’s intensely delivered final soliloquy on the frequently cited ‘Rats’ of his highly fevered anti-Semitic neurosis, fittingly contradictory in its ultimate tribute to said motifs as the natural successors to the ensuing devastation of Berlin and Germany – ‘let them bore into my skull’ or such like – is the lasting icing on the cake to this brilliantly conceived drama.

I’ve watched this superb television play several times now and can say that it never dulls on reviewing, unlike much of modern historical adaptations and interminable docudramas. This really is a gem of classic British TV drama and is addictive viewing. As I say, it is also, strangely, one of the most darkly hilarious viewing experiences of maniacal hysteria you’re ever likely see, outside of Fawlty Towers that is. But this is by no means a criticism: it just shows how intensely riveting the acting and scripting is that one can randomly laugh throughout its course without for one moment being allowed to forget the unnatural extremes of human motivation and behaviour that underpin its superficially mannered surface. A seething little masterpiece.

Alan Morrison © 2009