In 1931, with Germany struggling with a collapsing economy and Berlin a battleground between the fascists and those who opposed them, a young Jewish prosecutor at the central criminal court named Hans Litten (played here by Ed Stoppard) decided to force the ascending dark star of European politics, Adolf Hitler (Ian Hart), to appear as a witness at the trial of some brownshirt brutes accused of murdering innocent civilians at the Eden Palace Dance Hall. In compelling Hitler to confront the conflicts in his twisted ideology, and forcing him to admit that he not only condoned but conceived the violence of his followers, Litten hoped to discredit him and halt his rise to power.
This BBC Northern Ireland dramatisation of these little-known events could almost be a stage play recreated for the screen with only the tiniest alterations being made for the change in medium. There is little external photography – Hitler being subpoenaed at a family picnic, a brief trip through the Nazi-infested back-streets of Berlin – while the cameras in the gloomy, shadowy studio sets of Litten’s house, and the variously vibrant or swastika-festooned bars around the city are almost uncomfortably static, only coming to life for the later courtroom scenes in which they sweep and swirl around Litten like his fast-moving thoughts come to life.
Stoppard is exceptional throughout, dominating the early scenes with a confidence that mirrors his character and ably demonstrating the almost arrogant assurance the young lawyer has in his own abilities as a crusader for justice. ‘You have an ego the size of the Brandenburg Gate,’ his clerk Margot Fürst (Sarah Smart) remarks. ‘He gets a twitch in his trousers every time he hears the word “therefore”,’ her husband Max (John Hollingworth) adds.
But despite the fine performance of Stoppard, it is inevitable that greater scrutiny will be applied to Ian Hart’s interpretation of Adolf Hitler. The camera teases his introduction, lingering on profile, rear-view headshots and concealment until finally revealing him… and the man who has twice proved an eerily lifelike John Lennon onscreen brings a familiarity to the role of the fledgling Fuhrer that almost rivals the definitive Downfall portrayal of Bruno Ganz.
However, in an entirely English-spoken production where there are no attempts at Germanic accents (except on proper names that are left untranslated), Hart’s quasi-Churchillian intonation takes a little getting used to. But by the time he has stepped from the witness box and is giving Litten his scariest, Gary Oldman-in-The Firm stare across the courtroom, it’s actually quite chilling how convincing a Hitler he makes. When he’s spouting the unhappily recognisable rhetoric that gets a large proportion of the watching crowd in the gallery on his side – and that cows Bill Paterson’s previously iron judge Kurt Ohnesorge into submission – it’s uncanny to the point of frightening.
Litten, ultimately, fails. Hitler leaves the court without being directly linked to the thugs on trial and gives a triumphant oratory outside to reporters and members of the public who eagerly lap up his every word. When the prosecutor comes out and makes a stirring speech in favour of liberty – ‘It is the arguments and quarrels that I believe in; that is what makes a society’ – those still listening look away in fear and shame and dismissal. ‘Not everyone wants to be rescued,’ Litten’s mother Irmgard (Ruth McCabe) remarks sadly – and her words take on a dismally ironic tone when her son refuses to flee Germany for the security of Paris and is, as we are informed in the epilogue, eventually taken to Dachau.
Years of unimaginable torture later, and with the shadows of war looming large across Europe, Hans Litten committed suicide. The man who crossed Hitler paid a terrible price for his courage and conviction, the Nazis destroying his life as horribly and effortlessly as they did democracy itself. The Man Who Crossed Hitler is a well-made, worthily-intentioned telling of a story that mainstream history has regrettably overlooked.
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 21st August 2011 on BBC Two.