Film review: Son of Hitler (1978)
Director: Rod Amateau. Screenplay: Burkhard Driest, Lukas Heller, based on a story by Udo Lindenberg. Starring: Bud Cort, Peter Cushing, Felicity Dean, Anton Diffring, Leo Gordon, Heinz Bennent, Dieter Schidor, Burkhard Driest, Lynn Cartwright, Peter Kern, Til Kiwe, Peter Capell.
For thirty-three years, former Nazi officer Haussner (Cushing) has been searching for Adolf Hitler’s son in the hopes of restoring The Reich, but when he’s finally successful, Wilhelm Hitler (Cort) turns out to be a terminally naïve, illiterate wood carver who has spent all his life isolated in the mountains.
However horrible they are, there’s just something inherently funny about Nazis, and it’s only natural that there are so many comedies about them. The Germans aren’t known for their humour, but even they managed the very funny Schtonk! 1992 about Hitler’s lost diaries. Son of Hitler (also known as Hitler’s Son) can be seen as a precursor to that film, being similar in theme and similarly German in origin. It’s nowhere near as good, nor is it anywhere near as bad as some people (including Bud Cort) would have you think.
If we take a look at the things that are bad, we find on the directing and editing side a rather poor sense of comedic timing, some examples of remarkably awful acting (possibly due to dubbing or actors working in a language other than their own) and an almost blind eye on the part of scriptwriters and director when it comes to fully developing potentially hilarious sequences. For instance, one partially improvised scene with Cort walking down a street dressed in a Gestapo uniform and one involving slapstick in two dangerous-looking elevators must have looked a lot funnier on paper than they do on screen. Moreover, much of the film keeps a corny, children’s program oompa-oompa mood going, which feels vaguely insulting and sits poorly with the subject matter.
When the comedy does work, it’s in a different vein. There’s a satirical running gag lampooning the fact that many older Germans secretly longed for the “good old days”, and generous fun is also poked at all the Neo-Nazi parties spending their time denying that they are Nazis.
But the real fun comes from Bud Cort and Peter Cushing, who between them pull the movie up by its bootstraps and inject some much needed style. Cort’s performance is a little uneven in the early parts (maybe a result of him having a bad experience making the film), but soon he’s up to his usual level of excellence and makes Willi Hitler enjoyably clueless in his wide-eyed incomprehension of the world and of why he’s suddenly the centre of attention. It was a weird idea casting Cort as Hitler’s son, but that decision may be the only instance of genius this film displays.
Cushing rarely got the chance to do comedy, but his fans know how funny he could be, the beautifully delivered snide remarks of his baron Frankenstein being my favourite examples. In Son of Hitler Cushing, unusually, comes very close to going over the top as the rabid Haussner, who is clearly and in a very real sense in love with Hitler. Say what you will about the rest of the picture, but Cushing is hilarious in it and perfectly cast, making the most of funny gags and adding laughs to ones that aren’t that good. His reading of the first sentence of Mein Kampf alone is worth watching the movie for – he’s full of wild adoration while being furious at the fact that they dared incarcerate his beloved führer. He has some good throwaway lines too, like when he tells his staff upon Willi’s arrival: “Take him to my bedroom”; another nice hint at the romantic/sexual feelings Haussner has for anything or anyone to do with Hitler. Cushing also does some light stunt work, quite impressive for a very brittle-looking 65-year-old.
Anton Diffring, another old cult favourite, is in the movie too, and while he has a couple of funny lines, his icy demeanor isn’t well suited to comedy, and ultimately his character proves to be fairly pointless too.
This film was definitely made in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was never given a proper release or, in fact, any kind of release. According to reports it was shown a few times on German television in the 1980’s, but it was long thought lost. To my knowledge there is only one print in circulation, and while it doesn’t look very good, it’s perfectly watchable. Last time I checked, the whole movie was on YouTube, but a DVD of it gives a better, somewhat more cinematic experience.
Son of Hitler is well worth watching. It’s very funny in patches, and when it isn’t, at least it’s never slow or boring. It’s one of those movies that could have been great if the producers (one of them surnamed Göring – chew on that) had found someone better than a second rate TV director to helm it and if one more pass had been made on the script to crank up the funny another notch.
Rating: 5 of 10.