Words from Ian McKellen

MY HITLER is the real one. All the words and situations of Countdown to War were arranged by Ronald Harwood from the records of the politicians and diplomats involved. In preparation, I viewed as much archive film of Hitler as the producers could supply. I can now imitate the full variety of fuhrerial mannerisms.

But our script was backstage Hitler, away from the crowds and the stadium, surrounded by his courtiers and face to face with his opponents. The extant film of Hitler trying to relax in trilby and slacks, snuggling babies and wolfhounds, bowing to the young ladies and clowning with the gents — none of it is believable. He was the first politician to be created by the camera, yet he couldn't perform on home movies. His off-duty body language betrays his innate gaucheness, which power reversed into bullying, and his Puritanism, which bloated into fanaticism. amalgam of propaganda images — cartoons, ranting mimics and, most of all, Charlie Chaplin. Fifty years on, we still turn our fear into mockery and remember the Great Dictator as a buffoon.

In 1939, the official portraits and the snapshots belied the caricatures. He was then quite fleshy and corpulent. The silhouette was loose and decrepit; the dyed hair greased back off the brow. His clothes rarely fitted. No peacock: but he had the evil eye — all his contemporaries looked into it and were mesmerised. The Third Reich was devised and ruled by a hypnotist.

Costumed and padded, with a pale face and darkened hair, I strutted in front of the full-length mirror. Chaplin grimaced back at me. Then I got the clue. Swagger as he may have done at Nuremberg, Hitler's body looks is if it let him down. He was terrified of cancer; he didn't touch people; he was sexually apathetic; I bet he wanted to be taller. blinded the faithful to his physical inadequacy. An ideal subject for the television close-up.

Countdown to War


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