Considered a minor film in Sirk's filmography, shot in a week as a low-budget independent production before being bought by MGM, Hitler's Madman is often dismissed as a propaganda piece. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable work for two reasons: some of the director's main themes - however surprising it may be, considering the subject, to those who are unfamiliar with them - are illustrated here, and furthermore it contains the most stunning interpretation of Reinhard Heydrich ever filmed.
Beyond the obvious physical resemblance between John Carradine and Heydrich, it has often been noted that Sirk, a successful director at the UFA before he left Germany in 1937, had already met in person the head of RHSA. This doesn't mean that the portrait is individually accurate; yet it certainly reflects the impressions of a German in exile (Germans, in fact, as this is as much a German film as an American one) about that kind of men, and the regime they stood for. As a dandy, technocrat, pervert and nihilistic kind of Antichrist, the portrait is terrifying. So is the portrait of a doomed nazi apparatus, where men not only destroy society but devour themselves.
Conflicting forces within a society are also a recurrent theme in Sirk's works. Here, we have the 'traditional' (pastoral and peaceful) against the 'new order' (urban and bellicose), the former being the place for romance as well as religion, the latter the place of sexual perversion and nihilism. Whereas Fritz Lang's Hangmen also die was an urban, intellectual and secular thriller, Sirk's film from the start places the emphasis on the countryside ('land') and on religion as a desirable social order for a community - and as a strength against totalitarianism. We also have the conflict of generations among the villagers, the elders being accused by the young of being collaborators, however reluctant, to the occupying power.
Finally, we have the imbrication of racism and sexual predation (as a precursor to Imitation of Life). War crimes of a sexual nature weren't new in cinema (they had been depicted in early silent films about WWI), yet it is made clear in this film that it is an element of the nazi racial practice. As so many 70s nazi-sexploitation films would attest, it is a risky if not risqué subject, yet Sirk somehow manages to successfully resort to emotion as a closure. For these oppositions do not attempt to reach any kind of historical accuracy (in fact, many liberties are taken) but they are fully functional in setting the main characters' background, upon which their emotions - as well as ours -will unfold.
Emotionally, Hitler's Madman doesn't reach the heights of Sirk's 50s melodramas. However, women are as usual at the front, and make for very powerful scenes such as the student committing suicide, or the German mayor's wife learning about the death of both her sons on the Eastern Front. But the most striking scene is certainly Heydrich's ultimate moment: he is so desperate, cynical and unrepentant, and at the same time so eager to live that it's hard, not to feel sorry for him, but to deny him a part of humanity. Far from the numerous - and often poor - attempts to make such criminals 'familiar' by exposing their ordinary side, Sirk deliberately goes to the Shakespearian: it's the radical monster that belongs to us.
Hitler's Madman at imdb