By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/12/21 – Opening at several Laemelle theatres in Los Angeles on Friday, August 13, is The Meaning of Hitler (2021), the latest documentary from Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, inspired by German historian Sebastian Haffner’s bestselling book, The Meaning of Hitler (1978). This documentary is a provocative interrogation of our culture’s fascination with Adolf Hitler and Nazism set against the backdrop of the current rise of white supremacy, the normalization of Anti-Semitism and the weaponization of history itself. Shot in nine countries, the film traces Hitler’s movements, his rise to power and the scenes of his crimes. Commentary in the film is provided by Deborah Lipstadt, Martin Amis, Sir Richard Evans, Saul Friedlander, Yehuda Bauer, and famed Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Kiersfeld, who all weigh in on the lasting impact of Hitler’s virulent ideology. As fears of authoritarianism and fascism are increasing today in Europe and the United State, the film explores the myths and misconceptions of our understanding of the past, especially as a deeper understanding of German history is important to understanding what happened in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
In the film, these historians and experts challenge, deny and reframe the Hitler myth and to draw parallels to the present. IFC is the distributor of The Meaning of Hitler, which is releasing the film theatrically and online beginning August 13. The starting point of this film is the seminal work of Sebastian Haffner, whose book by the same title was an inquiry into the legend of Hitler that survived in Germany and elsewhere after World War II. Haffner set out to destroy that legend because he was worried about cultural amnesia. First of all, you need to understand German history, says historian Professor Saul Friedländer, whose book Nazi Germany and the Jews delved in to the personality of Adolf Hitler. As historian Yehuda Bauer, author of Rethinking the Holocaust, “You can’t put Hitler on a psychologists’ couch. For too long, Hollywood has had a love affair with the persona of Hitler and Nazis. But we need to remember that the most famous film ever made about Hitler is the one that he commissioned himself, Leni Riefenstahl”s The Triumph of Will about the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. The film is pure kitsch, like the Radio City Rockettes with its gorgeous pageantry that actually makes your flesh crawl. The film has an almost religious feeling, embracing death with a sense of eternity. This is what the Nazis believed – that they were acting in some huge historical play of the future and that is what made possible the cult of Hitler.
The filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker begin their documentary film as an inquiry in the value of making a film like this without just adding to the cult of Hitler. Because so much documentation of Hitler and the Nazis survive, the images live on. “It’s all propaganda packed as reality and the cult of Hitler has a big impact on the minds of younger people today than the story of the horror of the Holocaust.” Epperlein and Tucker did not want to make an archival film and sought a better approach. So they took Haffner’s book as a point of departure and developed themes from the various chapters of his book, elaborating on them and investigating how these themes remain alive in the cult of Hitler and impact right-wing extremist white supremacist beliefs, anti-Semitism, and a denial of history.
What made Hitler Hitler? His life was odd from the beginning. He was born in the village of Braunau am Inn, an Austrian town near the border with Bavaria, Germany. His family name was actually “Kitler” and he soon learned to erase his past, as he re-invented himself in the 1920s as a magnetic orator who took advantage of new microphone technology to address large rallies of fringe extremist groups like the National Socialist Party. Hitler is a puzzle. He was largely celibate and remained childless, with only a few women in his life who he treated as unimportant. He liked his dog. He never married until 24 hours before his suicide pact with Eva Braun in the Berlin bunker. Throughout his life, he was always ready for suicide, if needed. In the film, we visit the Berlin bunker where Hitler died with Enno Lenze, the curator of the Bunker Museum. “Younger people do not know that it was a war or what a bunker is.” What do younger people know about Hitler. They ask questions like: “Were you forced to be a NAZI? Why were the Nazis able to invade Germany? Are you sure that he is really dead?” Hitler and Eva Braun killed themselves by taking cyanide capsules and shooting themselves. In Hollywood portrayals of Hitler’s suicide, the door is usually closed before Hitler kills himself. Why does Hollywood usually provide Hitler such an honorable death? And yet his victims in the Holocaust are shown graphically in suffering and death, but Hitler is always allowed to die on his own terms. And so his legend lives on.
The film goes on to deconstruct the life and career of Adolf Hitler, following the lead of Haffner’s book. Fringe groups in the 1920s, much like today, use the rallying cry “We are the people” to talk about the loss of white privilege with the “invasion” of immigrants and refugees from other countries. They complain about the “lying press” and the shift in Euro-centered demographics. Hitler served in the Austrian army during World War I and, upon returning to Vienna after the war, was twice denied admission to the Vienna Art Academy because of his mediocre talent as an artist, who painted buildings without people. Vienna at the end of the 19th century was filled with modern art and architecture, but living conditions were terrible for the many poor immigrant people, including Czechs, Jews, and especially Orthodox “Caftan” Jews. It was here that Hitler formulated his intense hatred for Jews that shaped his thinking in his famous Mein Kampf, where he claimed that Jews were a different people and must be removed. This was the thrust of anti-Semitism and the belief that Jews are clan-ish and pushy, likely to be Communists and leftists yet skilled with making money. It is impossible to give a rational explanation for an irrational sentiment like this.
This takes us to the chapter of the film on “Denial” and the problematic David Irving, a man who claims to be an English historian and disputes Hitler’s responsibility for the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. Irving, who leads tours in Europe of Hitler-related sites, claims that the Holocaust was performed by Himmler on his own initiative behind Hitler’s back. But, of course, there is no evidence for this. Hitler continually called for the “annihilation of the Jewish race.” We see David Irving taking Hitler fans to visit Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair. Old-fashioned Holocaust deniers are essentially neo-Nazi fascists with ultra-right-wing views and anti-Semitic. They believe that Jews invented the Holocaust as a myth. Christopher Hitchens reminds us: “If the Holocaust can be re-written, any history can be re-written. Today, we see this in the United States, in many parts of Europe, where history has just become a political plaything.”
As the film directors point out: “There are facts. There are opinions. And there are lies.” History is not propaganda. We visit Munich, where the Nazi party first began and where Hitler started his career and re-invented himself as a politician and an orator. He knew how to work the crowd, like a love affair. He wanted to whip up the emotions of the crowd, but also to tame them. He wanted his masses to stand in blocks and in rows. And in Leni Reifenstahl’s vision, we see a nation of 80 million people standing in blocks, worshipping “Der Fuhrer.” Hitler’s speeches provided an outlet for people’s emotions. “It’s the Jews. It’s the system. There will come a day when you will be able to put your violent emotions into actions, and get your form of victory.” Does this sound familiar in the age of Trump? But, of course. The comparison is too obvious. We have a charismatic man with a quest for power that is sustained through all kinds of mythologies. And Hitler always got consent and never found anybody who objected.
We visit the Kempinski Hotel in Berchtesgaden, where Hitler and Nazi leader frequented this mountain retreat and plotted as far back as 1932 the elimination of the Jews. Hitler and his photographer shot a lot of pictures here. Created image of Hitler as someone who loved the German countryside, talked to neighbors and small children, like a caring uncle. Image of omnipotent, can do everything. An expert at everything. In the mountains, but no image as a sports person – did not ski or hike. He would walk a little and then get picked up by car.
In Berlin, Hitler was elected President during the so-called “Good Nazi Years.” The much-heralded “Night of the Long Knives” never took place, but only random, sporadic deaths, of a few hated opponents and rapidly suppressed. Prof. Saul Friedländer, historian, “Nazi Germany and the Jews” – German economy improved but those who opposed were arrested and put in camps, like the Communists. But at first, Jews were left alone. Because the Economy had improved, most Germans were enthusiastic., especially among the elites. Hitler in the 1930s managed to improve the German economy, providing guns and butter under the Third Reich. He received wide-spread support because of Germany’s rearmament in defiance of the Versailles Peace Treaty. As is pointed out, if Hitler had died or been assassinated in 1938, he would probably be remembered as a great German leader.
The German were looking for a savior and his speeches became a rallying cry: “Those of you are willing to rob, cheat, kill, and beat those who have done you no harm, gather around my flag.” Hitler believed in a racist theory of human domination and struggle for survival by the fittest. Theory of Master Race. They will be allowed some day to do the killings. And so they did. Quoting Haffner’s book directly: “For three years, Jewish families throughout Europe were taken from their homes or hiding places, transported to the East and driven naked into the death factories, where the chimneys of the cremating furnaces smoked ay and night. During those three years Hitler no longer enjoyed successes, as during the preceding eleven years. However, he found it easy to do without them since, more than ever before, he was not able to indulge the delights of the killer who has shed his last restraints, has hi victims in his grip and deals with them as he wishes.”
The film closes with several recent examples of how right-wing ultra-nationalists are picking up the Nazi vocabulary and re-animating the fascist trajectory – in Poland, in France, even in Germany and the United States. Liberal people do not understand how people can believe that stuff. The ideas behind Naziism are not dead. Today, the internet and YouTube can make fringe extremists into instant demagogues. We close with none other than Donald Trump making outrageous claims about COVID in 2020: “Because I know the truth, and people out there, don’t know what it is.” Consider his infamous brag: “The people, my people, are so smart. And you know what else they say, I have the most loyal people, did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I won’t lose any voters, ok? When someone is President of the United States, the authority is total.” As novelist Martin Amis points out: “This is all a lie.” Professor Bauer reminds us: “The problem that we have is not that the Nazis were inhuman but that they were human. … We all act out of ideas. Fortunately, they are not Nazi ideas. But the Nazi ideas were acted out, by people who were absolutely known.”