The Bunker (1981)

Since the miniseries is obsessed with anything related to World War II, Adolf Hitler pops up a lot.  In “The Bunker,” he pops up to be played by Anthony Hopkins, who won an Emmy for his work, taking on one of the craziest roles of his career (his actual career, not the crap he churned out after winning an Oscar and deciding to phone in the rest of his performances).  He comes closer than most Hitlers to being human, because he’s such a damn amazing actor, but the piece is very clear that he’s no hero. He’s a dying man, his nerves worn and his mind eaten away, and Hopkins is masterful, creating a fleshed-out character, but making sure not to overdo the pleas for sympathy because that would be cinematically unrealistic and historically untrue.
 
As expected, this being a historical miniseries, the movie starts at the end.  It’s Occupied Berlin, 1945.  Soldier James Naughton (playing James O’Donnell on whose book the movie is based) is looking for the bunker.  He asks a few Russian soldiers, but they don’t understand “da boonker” he yells, like a good ugly American and of course now they get it.  At the entrance, even that doesn’t help, but two cigarettes finally get him entry.  James O’Donnell’s book was actually filled with interviews

Back to January of the same year.  The Russians and Americans are advancing on Berlin.  Hitler has decided it’s time to go down and there he will stay for over 100 days until his cowardly end.  A picture of Frederick the Great (an awfully flattering one) is placed on the wall and smoking is not allowed.  Everyone is very pre-occupied with the little things, but by this point in history, Hitler had long lost a sense of reality.  The first of our friendly bunker denizens to arrive is Albert Speer (an impossibly dashing Richard Jordan), who gets ushered into a meeting where Hitler is listening to a report from his generals that contains very little truth, because they know he can’t handle it. 

Speer and Hitler meet privately, where Hitler is clearly out of his gourd.  He indeed wants Germany destroyed so the enemies can’t get to it.  Speer notes that it would bring Germany “back to the Middle Ages,” which gets a smile from Hitler, who also says that any German who doesn’t survive isn’t a good German.  “The good ones will have already died,” he says plainly.  Speer is dumbfounded, but formulates a plan to gas the bunker (how’s that for irony?) in order to spare Germany from Hitler’s madness, well, what hasn’t been destroyed already.

It doesn’t take too long for Hitler to have one of his infamous tirades, ripping into his generals, who seem to barely notice, having been through it before.  Anthony Hopkins not only performs the tirade as written, but his whole body gets into the act. Not once during the meeting with the generals does he actually look anyone directly in the eye and his body languages suggests a confused old man. 

Get used to the arguments between Speer and Hitler.  Speer is the one voice in the chorus who doesn’t agree with the destruction of Germany just for the sake of it, but Hitler is insistent.  His hands constantly shaking and his legs barely shuffling, Hitler interrupts the conversation to present Speer with a birthday present, his photograph, and then returns to his orders to raze Germany.  Speer decides to give up assassination attempts, but he also decides not to follow Hitler’s orders.  He’s going to have to battle Martin Bormann (Michael Lonsdale), who has it out for Speer and is hell bent on doing anything Hitler says. 

After Hitler’s beloved dog gives birth, Hitler hauls Speer in for yet another two-way discussion where he lists every war Germany has survived since the Romans.  Hitler knows Speer has disobeyed his orders to have Germany destroyed, and graciously offers to have his longtime friend on leave, which Speer refuses.  Speer is blunt: “the war is lost.”  Hitler is fiery: “I will destroy the pestilence of Jewish Marxism…I will defeat them all!  I will defy the entire world!”  Hitler asks for Speer to have faith in him and his life will be spared, but Speer again sticks to the truth, and then there is some very good writing, a moment that makes us wonder if perhaps Hitler has a tiny grasp on reality still.  “Can you at least HOPE that the world is not lost?  Surely you must be able to HOPE, Speer.  That will be enough to satisfy me,” he says, almost trying to convince himself, and gives Speer 24 hours to think it over.

Speer decides to play Hitler’s game and tell him what he wants to hear, but his plan is that the destruction operation will never happen, tying it up in red tape. 

Also not playing in the sandbox of mental health is Joseph Goebbels (played by Cliff Gorman with the strangest and most annoying American accent).  Eyebrows ablaze, Goebbels delights in the news of Roosevelt’s death and probably believes his own propaganda that the war is being won.

Into the bunker sweeps Eva Braun (miniseries regular Susan Blakely, whose salary is probably only a fraction of Hopkins’ and therefore plays it like she knows she got a raw deal), portrayed here as a daffy dame who brings all of her clothes and furs because she wants to be pretty for Hitler.  She’s not the only woman in the bunker.  There is cook Constanze Manziarly (Pam St. Clement), who is rabidly devoted to Hitler and who has the movie’s second time-wasting flashback as she readies candles for Hitler’s birthday cake. 

The whole gang shows up for the birthday party, bombs bursting outside.  Bormann is worried that Hitler isn’t strong enough to greet the throngs.  Himmler voices secret doubts and even thinks of negotiating peace, though he’s still delighting in his concentration camp plans.  Hitler fakes his way through an acceptance speech, minimizing his frailty and sticking to the crap about fighting until the end and not being defeated.  He spits out, “we shall not be defeated” like a stuck record and then mingles. 

Given the news that Berlin is closed on three sides, Hitler orders a huge offensive, and anyone who doesn’t obey is to be killed.  “He’s having enough trouble retreating,” his officers snarl to each other about the general who is given this task.  Hitler leaves the bunker to greet the Hitler Youth, now drafted into being actual soldiers as there are no adult men left.  Human Hitler shines through just a tad as he tells one boy he wishes his generals were as brave as the young.

Quiz time.  What element has been missing so far?  Like I even have to ask!  A slumming movie star, of course!  This time, it’s Piper Laurie, playing Magda Goebbels, given “guest star” billing.  She enters halfway through when her hubby calls and tells her to bring their gaggle to the bunker.  Bormann takes the opposite attitude, sending his wife and children away with a cover story about refugee children as he fondles his secretary’s hand.  Hitler’s loyal doctor is sent away, but two secretaries ask his permission personally to be allowed to stay.  The denizens of the bunker are finally assembled, all aboard who’s going aboard, hunkering down on Berlin’s own Titanic below the ground.  Gathering the whole staff, Hitler nearly collapses in a screaming fit about staying in Berlin and dying in Berlin, blaming everyone else, but actually admitting, haltingly, that the war is lost. 

Yeah, he says that, but soon enough he’s spouting gibberish and ordering armies this way and that.  One general, who was caught trying to flee, is killed in the bunker, his body left dangling from the ceiling as Hitler reads stories to the Goebbels brood.  Things are so bad that the guards on duty have either fled or are upstairs partying with some drunk women. 

Speer shows up to say ta-ta, and Bormann wants him to speak to Hitler about leaving the bunker and hightailing it to his aerie home in the country.  The Hitler he encounters is completely broken, seeming to go downhill by the minute.  Hitler rambles about the plans they once made for a glittering expensive Germany, “what might have been,” he admits.  Hitler wants to know Speer’s opinion on whether he should flee or not, and Speer tells him the leader of the German people should die in Berlin.  Hitler has, of course, already decided that, because he knows if he leaves, he may fall into the hands of his captors.  Instead he wants to be cremated, so he’s “free of everything,” as he says, in a moment of wistfulness.  Speer bravely admits he has been lying to Hitler, but Hitler is too far gone to comprehend and sends Speer off to bid adieu to Eva, who is in her room, dressed up, hair done and dancing to a peppy record with a bottle of champagne on hand.  Blakely plays this scene with a smile plastered on her face, overdoing the innocence routine, at one point even asking, “why did so many people have to be killed?”  Has she NOT been living with Hitler through the entire war? 

As Speer is on the way out, he runs into Magda, made up to look like a million bucks (Magda Goebbels should have been so lucky).  Speer wants to help her leave, but she says, “our lives have no further meaning without the Fuhrer,” and she intends to die, along with her children, with the big boss. 

Goring has informed Von Ribbentrop that Hitler has gone ’round the bend and he has assumed all of his offices.  Bormann tells Hitler it’s an act of treason, hoping for a tirade that will end in Goring’s head, but Hitler is oddly peaceful.  “He’s a drug addict,” Hitler says and shuffles out of the room.  Speer tries to say goodbye, but Hitler’s mind is too gone to comprehend and Speer never gets his tender farewell. 

To hammer in the fact that this bunker is filled with only nutcases, the women have “afternoon tea and crumpets,” chattering about the past, but Hitler is off in a world of his own, croaking about Vienna.  Eva will have none of that.  She wants to talk of flowers and pretty things…and their impending marriage!  Some poor soul is found who can perform the ceremony, rather hysterically saying that all documents are in order.  Both promise they are of pure Aryan blood and then can sign the marriage document.  Or try, at least, because Hitler’s hands shake so badly at this point his signature looks like that of a preschooler.  Eva, makes it worse by dashing off a pretty signature at top speed at the same time. 

There’s a party in full bloom, but Hitler sequesters himself with a secretary and dictates his famous last letter.  He blames the Jews, he fires Goring and Himmler and then decides he wants to stay alive until May 5, the date of Napoleon’s death.  I’m sure the ghost of Napoleon was thrilled. 

Goebbels takes it all a step further by throwing himself a party (with his New York accent intact), even summoning dying soldiers to attend.  His job as propaganda minister is never finished, so he takes the opportunity to blame the Jews again.  He offers the wounded soldiers gratitude and they play along, the sum total of their ages being about 27 and not knowing any better. 

It’s not a good month to be a world leader.  First Roosevelt dies and now Hitler gets the news that Mussolini has been killed.  Hitler is unmoved, instead asking his doctor for the cyanide tablets he ordered.  They are untested, so he has them fed to the poor dog.  They work.  Who will take care of the puppies?  No one, since the doctor orders them killed too.  Geez, the Nazis are puppy killers too? 

Eva and Magda hug and Magda knows God will forgive her for doing in her own children.  Eva then gets dolled up so she and Hitler can say goodbye to everyone in history’s grimmest receiving line.  Hitler bequests the painting of Frederick the Great and locks himself in with Eva, who gets comfy on the sofa and removes her shoes. 

Hitler and the Mrs. each take their tablet and then Hitler shoots himself in the head, too much of a coward to even wait for the pill to kick in!  The staff takes their bodies out of the bunker where they are doused in gasoline and burned.  Persniketty little creep Goebbels looks weirdly proud watching the bodies go up in flames.

Magda tells the kids they are flying to the country the next day, but wants them to get a good night’s sleep with a special piece of chocolate.  She puts on a ravishing gown and collects the kids from playing, taking time to brush their hair and get them all pretty.  The staff members are horrified, but bushy-browed Goebbels is only worried that the bodies of Adolf and Eva are charred beyond recognition (or perhaps on the way to Argentina).  Goebbels then delivers a monologue in a voice that evokes a tough in an Arthur Miller play.  I’m sorry, couldn’t he even TRY to go a bit German?  None of the other cast members are German, but they attempt accents.  After killing the kids, Medea…sorry, Magda has one last cigarette.  Her husband prattles on and on and on, also with a cigarette (geez, they didn’t wait ten minutes for Hitler to be gone before they lifted the ban on smoking).  She sits down to play solitaire and he puts on his flashy leather coat.  The Hitlers didn’t make nearly as much of offing themselves as these two melodramatic hams.  He even chirps to the staff, “at least you won’t have to carry our bodies up the stairs,” as he and his wife do themselves in outside of the bunker.  What a guy!

The secretaries dot their faces with make-up to feign small pox so as not to be raped by the Russian soldiers and everyone leaves.  The poor overworked engineer is the last one remaining, clutching a pretty flower and turning on music, interrupted on the radio by news that Hitler has died “fighting in Berlin.”

The voice of James Naughton returns to tell us what happened to everyone in the bunker.  Most were captured by the Russians, except for Bormann, who killed himself. 

Too long by at least half an hour, “The Bunker” is actually very well done.  Anthony Hopkins’ Hitler is remarkably done, emphasizing the dying man, physically and mentall undone, rather than the irate lunatic.  It’s not exactly a touching performance, but why should it be?  He’s playing Hitler after all!

Categories: Historical Miniseries

Leave a Comment or Question