It’s always a risk for an actor to play such a despised historical figure as Hitler, but it’s a meaty role and actors do love a meaty role (not to mention the allure of an award for said role). Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guinness, Ian McKellen, Noah Taylor (twice) and Robert Carlyle are just some of the big names to have had a crack, with varying degrees of success. As Hitler assassination plot thriller Valkyrie comes to SBS, we dissect their performances.
Anthony Hopkins: The Bunker (1981)
Hopkins received raves for playing the Führer in this three-hour docudrama that follows the last days of Hitler and the Third Reich. The New York Times called his performance “extraordinarily powerful… His Hitler is mad, often contemptible, but always understandable.” Hopkins won an Emmy for his troubles, though it must be said it’s pretty jarring to hear Hitler speak with a Welsh-inflected accent.
Ian McKellen: Countdown to War (1989)
McKellen’s formidable performance also received good notices, as did the 1989 TV docudrama that used official records, private diaries and correspondence to chronicle the political manoeuvring in Europe in the lead-up to WWII.
Researching the role, McKellen found Hitler “tended to delegate a lot and had a lot of spare time, in which he used to watch movies,” the acclaimed actor told The Independent in 1997. “He liked nothing better than to watch himself on-screen while eating chocolates. He loved chocolates. He had bad teeth and bad breath and indigestion, which I always think is a clue to Hitler, that he was rotting away inside.”
Noah Taylor: Max (2002) / Preacher (2017)
The Australian actor has played Hitler twice and both productions he was in have faced criticism for humanising the tyrant. In 2002’s Max, a fictional account of what Hitler may have been like before he formed the Nazi party, art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack) takes the young aspiring artist under his wing in Munich as Hitler’s ideologies take shape.
This year, Taylor joined season two of supernatural romp Preacher as Hitler, stuck in hell alongside committed Christian Eugene (Ian Colletti), aka "Arseface". Show co-creator Seth Rogen says, "We’re definitely trying to play with ideas of redemption and rehabilitation. And if there is a Hell, what’s the point of it? Could you change in Hell?”
Sarah Silverman: Conan (2016)
Actor and comedian Silverman played Hitler in this March 2016 episode of the tonight show, the gag being that the dictator was sick and tired of being compared to then-presidential nominee Donald Trump. And not least because Trump is “crass”. “What kind of person talks about his penis size on national television?” asked Hitler, who sounded suspiciously just like Silverman. “I famously have a micro penis. That’s what makes a tyrant.”
Alec Guinness: Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973)
Before he was on the light side as Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, Sir Alec Guinness was on the dark side playing the Führer in 1973 drama Hitler: The Last Ten Days. Well, sort of. You’d expect the acting legend would have gotten rave reviews for his take, but critics saw an unintentional comical element to it in a film many found underwhelming in the first place.
In his one-star review, the late Roger Ebert said, “Somehow this isn’t Hitler, it’s Guinness with a moustache, and it’s hard to remember the movie isn’t a parody. ‘Springtime for Hitler’ from The Producers keeps sneaking in.” Meanwhile, The New York Times described Guinness’s performance as reminiscent of comedian Jack Benny. Good if you’re in a comedy, not so much a drama.
The critics aren’t wrong, but more grating is that, like many English-language movies about historical events, it’s very odd to hear Hitler with a plummy English accent.
Robert Carlyle: Hitler: The Rise of Evil (2003)
The Trainspotting and The Full Monty actor received mixed reviews for his portrayal of Hitler in this four-hour 2003 miniseries about Hitler’s rise to power.
“Carlyle is flat-out brilliant in portraying both Hitler's extreme insecurity and his obsessive determination to overcome it,” said SF Gate.
Variety, however, wasn't so generous, describing Carlyle’s performance as one “that borders on cartoon overplay… Carlyle gets so deeply into the role it’s hard to take a mental break during the broadcast since every speech he gives and every decision he makes screams out for attention. It’s overboard as much as it’s passionate.”
Seth MacFarlane: Family Guy (2000)
There have been several Hitler gags over the years in Family Guy. MacFarlane, the show’s creator, voiced the dictator as he and Eva Braun playfully toyed with cyanide in the bunker, as well as in the 2000 episode "Death is a Bitch" when Death posits what would have happened if Hitler had lived. Of course, he’d be hosting his own eponymous talk show interviewing Christian Slater on whether the star will be showing his naked butt in his next movie.
Hank Azaria: The Simpsons (2010)
In a dream sequence in the season 22 episode "The Fight Before Christmas", Marge (Julie Kavner) took Hitler out Inglourious Basterds-style by shooting him and blowing up the cinema where he and the Nazis were watching a propaganda film of a Nazi Dumbo bombing London. As he tried to evade his fate, Simpsons regular Azaria as Hitler cried, “Nein! Nein! Why did I go to the nine o’clock show?” before ripping off his 'stache and sticking it on a lieutenant like velcro. “Das ist Hitler!”
Watch Valkyrie on Friday 10 November at 8:30pm on SBS.
Watch 'Valkyrie' on SBS
Genre: War, Drama
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wlaschiha, Christian Oliver, David Bamber, Carice van Houten
What's it about?
Based on the true story of a high-level Nazi plot to assassinate Hitler. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is a loyal officer who serves his country all the while hoping that someone will find a way to stop Hitler (David Bamber) before Europe and Germany are destroyed. Realising that time is running out, he decides that he must take action himself and joins the German resistance. Armed with a cunning strategy to use Hitler\'s own emergency plan - known as Operation Valkyrie - these men plot to assassinate the dictator and overthrow his Nazi government from the inside.