The Latest in Film ... Bringing Hitler to Life by Placing His Head on an Actor's Body

John Preston, in the Sunday Telegraph (Oct. 17, 2004):

In a dark wood in northern Poland, up near the Russian border, something dreadful is happening: Hitler is being brought back to life. There have been resurrected Hitlers before, of course, on screen and in novels, but nothing remotely like this. Using "the most innovative computer animation techniques ever seen on TV", Hitler's face has in effect been superimposed on to an actor's body.

Although this hybrid Hitler is only partially flesh and blood, he struts, rants and gesticulates just like the real thing. But having breathed new digitalised life into the Fuhrer, what do you do with him? This being television, the answer is simple: you give him his own show.

Virtual History: The Plot to Kill Hitler is a cod documentary about the attempt to kill him in 1944 - "The July Plot". On July 20, 1944, a group of high-ranking German generals, led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, tried to blow Hitler up at his Polish headquarters, the Wolf's Lair. The plot failed, but only just: a briefcase full of explosives detonated as planned, but left Hitler with only minor injuries. He soon recovered, the captors were shot, and the war continued for another year....

Now, just a few yards away from where Stauffenberg's bomb exploded, The Plot to Kill Hitler is being screened in the Fuhrer's former communications bunker. So what exactly is the future of history? Well, on this evidence here, it looks very much like being fabrication.

What the film-makers have done is to shoot "new" newsreel footage that resembles the real thing but in fact shows events that were never filmed at the time. Thus Hitler is seen having his breakfast and being injected with his daily "pick-me-up" by his physician, while Churchill loafs about in his dressing-gown until mid-morning reading the papers.

In order to obtain the desired level of would-be veracity, the actors involved had to wear specially designed frames on their heads while they were filmed. These recorded each of their movements, however tiny. Meanwhile, images of the three historical faces were scanned into a computer. Once filming was completed, the actors were digitally decapitated and their heads replaced by those of their computer-generated counterparts.

The results may not be faultless - Churchill's head, in particular, seems to be moving in a different plane to the rest of him - but they were certainly good enough to send a ripple of astonishment through the assembled hacks and historians.

According to David Abraham, head of Discovery Networks Europe, "Audiences will be able to see historical figures as they never have done before. In future, if it's done responsibly, this technique will allow us to tell history's greatest stories in a completely new way."

The key word here, of course, is "responsibly". Everyone involved is very aware that in the wrong hands this technique could cause an even greater blurring of the line between fact and fiction than exists at the moment. For instance, you could create convincing broadcasts from despots or crackpots who had either died years beforehand or didn't want to run the risk of actually being filmed.

As the historian Andrew Roberts, one of the advisers on The Plot to Kill Hitler, concedes, "Yes, it is possible to create false history like this. But here we've been very careful only to construct scenes that are non-contentious, and we haven't tried to reconstruct dialogue. I think that as long as you make it perfectly clear what's going on, then there isn't an ethical problem."

Also in the audience is a dapper, black-haired man with something worryingly familiar about his features. He is Clive Brooks, a former official in the immigration department of the Metropolitan Police, who plays Hitler - at least he does from the neck down. But in order that the visual effects team should have a suitable base on which to superimpose Hitler's face, it was necessary that there should be a close resemblance between actor and dictator.

"People have told me several times in the past that I look like Hitler," admits Brooks, trying to sound as cheerful about it as one can under the circumstances. "When they approached me, I thought it would be fascinating to have a go. However, I wasn't under any illusions. Basically, I was there as a body actor. I had to hit my marks and turn my head at the right moment. But in a sense," says Brooks, valiantly if none too plausibly, "you could argue that there was more acting involved; that it's easier to give your face to the camera than it is to keep it away."

With that, we gathered up our kitbags and tin mugs and were loaded back on to the trucks. On the way to the airfield, accompanied by motorcycle outriders in WW2 uniforms, we passed a line of cars waiting at a level crossing. Inside the cars people stared in astonishment as history, briefly replayed as farce, swept past their gaze.

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