Why are we still so obsessed with Hitler? Unconventional new documentary leaves the answer out of reach. | Arts and Features
“Is it possible to make a film like this without contributing to the Nazi cinematic universe?” “
This line of storytelling comes at the beginning of “Hitler’s meaning», A fiery new documentary on Nazism’s lingering hold on our culture, directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. It’s a cheeky reference to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a world shared by the comic giant’s many on-screen superhero characters. Like the Marvel fandom, Hitler’s obsession with the Nazis encourages a cult-like devotion to a sprawling, interconnected alternate reality – except that the shared fantasy of the Nazi Cinematic Universe is that Hitler had the right idea of the Jews.
Based on the classic essay by German journalist Raimund Pretzel (published under his pseudonym Sebastian Haffner), “The Meaning of Hitler” is an exploration of the globe at the heart of our society’s fascination with Nazis, anti-Semitism and fascist ideology. Why is it still so visible today? Why have we anointed him as a unique evil figure, rather than an evil that could be reproduced today? And why do so many people still seem to admire him or, worse yet, subconsciously imitate him?
Using Pretzel’s original text as a starting point, Epperlein and Tucker cast a sidelong glance at the entertainment and political apparatuses that supported Hitler’s myth in the decades following his suicide in the bunker. Their efforts, like the “Nazi Cinematic Universe” line, hope to be both sarcastic, self-deprecating, and genuinely insightful.
All of this is accomplished in an unusual style that mostly rejects the patient structural framework of a standard documentary in favor of a free associative approach more worthy of an Internet flyby (or one of the propaganda videos of Leni Riefenstahl that the film takes care to dissect). Large text flashes on the screen (words such as “Savior” and “Evil”) as we move through space and time at a breakneck pace. The viewer sees archival footage, which collides with today’s memorials, YouTube videos, and Western art clips (from “The Producers” to “Star Wars”). We are in Hitler’s bunker; now we are at the site of his birth; wait, now we’re at a World Cup celebration in France; now we are driving the empty streets of New York affected by COVID; Here we are now on the site of the Sobibor extermination camp, of which the Nazis took care to destroy all traces, and which therefore constitutes a practical metaphor for the dangers of forgetting or denying the lessons of the past.
We also get traditional biographical material on Hitler, and – in 2021 – plenty of discussion of the current political moments that the filmmakers offer as parallels to fascist thinking, including Europe’s reactions to the migrant crisis; the rise of far-right nationalism in Germany and Poland; the Charlottesville March; and even former President Donald Trump. Directors know they’re not the first to draw any of these parallels: cheeky opening streak places its sources alongside Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny” and several other books which constitute the new canon for cosmopolitans concerned with fascism. (Is it also, in a way, a Nazi literary universe?)
A segment on anti-Semitism makes the surprising choice to juxtapose an interview with Deborah Lipstadt (recently appointed to be the anti-Semitic envoy of the US State Department) with segments featuring disgraced British author David Irving. Yes, this David Irving – the one whose libel case against Lipstadt in 1996 sadly ended with a British court ruling that he was a denialist (and inspired the movie “Denial”). The filmmakers attend one of Irving’s warped tours of the Nazi death camps, during which they record him making all kinds of anti-Semitic comments; they are appalled at what he represents and seem primarily fascinated that a man like him exists.
The inclusion of Irving in the film is the exception, however. The other talking heads are a familiar who’s who of renowned WWII scholars, including Saul Friedländer and Yehuda Bauer, both Czech-born Jews whose personal Nazi survival stories inform their commitment to scholarship even to one. old age, as well as Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and an assortment of other experts and tour guides. All those personalities who have devoted their entire lives to separating history from propaganda must now watch as propaganda threatens to prevail, and sensationalist documentaries about the Nazis are giving way to ironic right-wing YouTube memes.
Everywhere we go we also see the boom mics and clappers that remind us we’re watching a movie – a trick that Epperlein and Tucker also used in their previous documentary, “Karl Marx City,” which investigated the suicide of the father of Epperlein in the former East Germany and which, like this film, was also a commentary on the totalitarian forces of today. There, the filmmakers sought to make visible what the Stasi had repressed. Here, their deliberate presence feels like a confessional on YouTube, as they continually wonder what their film will be for. Why take 90 minutes to once again warn everyone about Hitler, they wonder, when every mention of him only seems to do more harm than good?
Why, indeed. Jn
“The Meaning of Hitler” opened in theaters and on demand on August 13.