Ernest Gill

Hamburg - A chillingly frank screen portrayal of Adolf Hitler's final hours in his Berlin bunker has spawned a national debate over whether Germans are prepared to view the Nazi dictator as a tragic human being rather than as a monster.

In a country where display of Nazi emblems is banned, Germans are long accustomed to being reminded by television and the movies that Hitler was the 20th Century's ultimate war criminal.

And in a country where the spectre of neo-Nazism is ever-present, any less than damning portrayal of Hitler in books, on TV or in movies is suspected of playing to radical rightwing sentiments.

Now, for the first time, Germany's best-known film producer has teamed up with the country's best-known 20th Century historian and a top-notch cast to risk resurrecting Hitler as never before.

Veteran actor Bruno Ganz stars as Hitler in producer Bernd Eichinger's film, made with the scholarly assistance of award-winning German historian Joachim Fest.

Movie audiences will be taken inside the bunker for an eye-witness look at Hitler's final days in a biopic entitled Der Untergang - Hitler Und Das Ende Des Dritten Reiches (Downfall - Hitler And The End Of The Third Reich).

"Ganz IS Hitler," Fest said at a media screening of the $15m film, which is scheduled for release on September 16.

'Coming to terms with the past'

"I took one look at him in full make-up and a chill ran down my spin," said Fest, author of major Hitler biographies. We show him as a sickly shadow of his former self, knowing the end is near."

But Eichinger said the portrayal is entirely based on historical fact.

"I sent my script to Herr Fest and if he had rejected it, my project would have immediately disappeared into a drawer," he said.

Fest, author of a best-selling biography of Hitler and former publisher of one of Germany's most prestigious daily newspapers, Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung, said he had long been puzzled as to why no other historian had taken up the last-days topic, "so I decided to do it myself".

Eichinger also drew upon the memoirs of the late Traudl Junge, Hitler's last stenographer, who published her memoirs in late 2002 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Her book, published only days before she died, contains hitherto unknown insights into life in the bunker in those fateful final days in the spring of 1945.

Eichinger insisted Germans are sophisticated enough to read between the lines and come to their own conclusions about Hitler.

Nonetheless, the movie is hotly debated in the German press and on radio and television talk shows. While critics fear the film could pander to neo-Nazis, others welcome it as a refreshingly candid attempt at what Germans call "vergangenheitsbewaeltigung" - coming to terms with the past. - Sapa-dpa
Edited by Ilse Arendse,00.html