(KRT) BERLIN Hitler plays with children. He's kind to animals. He charms the office secretaries. He even sheds a tear.
Hitler kisses Eva Braun on the mouth affectionately, not passionately and we see a filament of his saliva.
Certainly, the German people know Adolf Hitler well, but this is an aspect of the Fuhrer they never have seen before.
For nearly half a century, German filmmakers have steered clear of portraying Hitler on the big screen. It was thought to be too soon, too painful and too easy to get it all wrong.
But "Der Untergang" ("The Downfall"), a new German film about the Nazi dictator's final days in his Berlin bunker, has broken that taboo and portrays Hitler with an intimate and humanizing realism.
Before the film's opening last week, many commentators in Germany feared that humanizing Hitler would legitimize Hitler, soften his evil and make his crimes easier to forgive.
Critics are giving "Der Untergang" mixed reviews, but there is a general consensus that Swiss-born actor Bruno Ganz's creepily convincing portrayal of the Nazi tyrant is a small masterpiece. In his humanity, Hitler comes across as all the more ghastly.
"If you portray a character like Hitler, you have to portray him as he was," said Bernd Eichinger, the film's producer and screenwriter. "And he was a human being. He was not an alien. He was not another species. I think it's dangerous simply to show him as a maniac or a monster."
Eichinger based his screenplay on the writings of Joachim Fest, a respected historian, and the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary during the final days.
"We don't have to forget that this man had a charisma. He had the ability to suck millions of people into his ideas and to keep them convinced that he was the one who would lead them out of their misery," Eichinger said.
Eichinger, whose credits as a producer include "The Mists of Avalon," "Resident Evil" and the newly released "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," said that for today's audiences, a feature film often was more "real" than a documentary.
"In a documentary, you have people flicker around in black and white, and you see them mostly in official situations and you don't understand what was it that made everybody follow this man with this strange voice," he said.
"What we did was to take it out of the faraway historical situation. With a feature, you bring these things alive now. Every time the movie is screened it's sort of here and now, and you have to include yourself. You are part of the events and you ... are forced to ask, `What would I have done?'"
As the 60th anniversary of the war's end approaches, there are several other projects in the pipeline that will give Germans an up-close look at Hitler and his henchmen. "The Goebbels Experiment" profiles the Nazi propaganda minister, while "The Devil's Architect," a television production scheduled to air next spring, explores the relationship between Hitler and architect Albert Speer, later the regime's armaments minister.
Wolfgang Wittermann, a historian at the Berlin Free University, said all of this was good in that it helped create an audience for serious research into Germany's Nazi past, but bad because movies tend to gloss over the complicity of the German people in the crimes of the Nazi regime at a time when many Germans are beginning to absolve themselves of the sins of their fathers and grandfathers.
"It reduces the history of Fascism to the history of Hitler," he said. "People look at the movies and they think, `It wasn't me, it was Hitler. Hitler is dead now. All is fine.'"
"Der Untergang" is not an easy film to watch. While the fighting approaches its fiery crescendo in Berlin's streets, the audience feels trapped with Hitler and his sycophants in the claustrophobic bunker below.
Russian tanks close in, their cannons rip apart the city's civilian population and waiters in white gloves prepare a candle-lit dinner for the Fuhrer and Joseph Goebbels.
Hitler careens schizophrenically between towering rages and self-pitying laments.
"I planned such great things for the German people, but they didn't understand," he says as the end approaches. "The only thing I did well was to cleanse German living space of the Jewish poison."
Eva Braun applies her lipstick, and the newlyweds close the bedroom door behind them. We hear a single gunshot.
In what is perhaps the film's most chilling moment, Goebbels' wife, Magda, one of Hitler's most ardent flatterers, poisons her six small children and then calms her nerves with a game of solitaire. Veteran German actress Corinna Harfouch, who plays Magda, said she suffered a physical breakdown during the filming of that scene.
The overall effect of the film on audiences is similar.
"At the end, tears were running down my face when I realized again what a monster Hitler was," said Rev. Klaus Pacholik, 64, a retired priest who brought his 92-year-old mother to a screening last week in Berlin.
"We survived the bombing in a cellar, and then I spent all my life in a divided city. For others, it was much worse," he said. "All of this because of Hitler."
Jurgen Heidemann, 59, a retired civil servant who attended the same screening, said he was grateful he was born the year Hitler died. "The worst would have been if the Germans had won the war," he said.