The Meaning of Hitler: The Prism of Remembrance, by Dayne Linford
In a mad little carousel, Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guiness, and many other notable or otherwise actors take their dose of cyanide, then lift a pistol to their heads, one after the other. Still more disappear behind bunker doors, like Bruno Ganz, so we can hear Hitler commit suicide off screen, as the editorial Narrator (Matilda Tucker) glides over them all, asking how we depict this final, pointless act in the long, brutal cinematic life of the 20th century’s most famous monster. The Meaning of Hitler, a documentary pseudo-sequel to Sebastian Haffner’s widely-read 1978 book, inspired by more than a shared title, extends the interrogation of the original into the difficult pop culture relationship with the Fuhrer, through to the modern resurgence of neo, would-be fascists across the Western world. Though pursuing a project necessarily tangled and thorny, directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker tackle it headlong through a varied and impressive series of interview subjects, from novelists to historians, experts on Hitler, sound technology, Nazism, and, indeed, an apologist, too. Thus, the documentary itself operates on unsure footing, acutely the product of our still mid-pandemic, mid-totalitarian moment, unable to render strong conclusions, but an absolutely worthy meditation on our 70 year love affair with evil.
Epperlein and Tucker, under the guidance of Professors Ute Frevert and Klaus Theweleit, experts on gender and violence during the rise of Nazism, among others, quickly establish the problematic nature of the remaining, oft-utilized images of Nazi Germany itself – all propoganda, their Berlin and Munich long destroyed during the war, not to mention their fantastical rendering of perfect, Aryan discipline in geometric lines of saluting soldiers and screaming sycophants. Starting out, the film could be more accurately titled The Meaning of the Depiction of Hitler, and it’s hard to know if it ever gets past that, or even could. Running over this old footage, countless depictions of Hitler himself, no doubt approved and even obsessively rewatched by the mass murderer, the Narrator continues to ask about whether this film, the one you’re watching, should even exist – yet one more bit of Hitler-focused media after the heyday of the 24-hour Hitler, ahem, History Channel and all the rest. Of course, this question is brought up after Martin Amis, Booker Prize listed author of Time’s Arrow and The Zone of Interest, mentions Trump as a possible, contemporary corollary. If the recently dethroned 45th President isn’t enough of a comparison to satisfy this question, plenty of would-be figures ripe for comparison dot Europe, among them Alexander Gauland of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, featured here comparing Hitler’s reign to a mere speck of bird shit on the otherwise clean, glorious history of Germany. This meta-conception nonetheless permeates the entire work, from film slates used to introduce interview subjects, to interactions between interview subjects and crew kept in, all showing the seams. Whether this blunts the concern that the views stated in the film might be abused by bad-faith actors is up for debate, and certainly the heightened awareness of film technique in Riefenstahl’s infamous work did little to curb its destructive impact. But in highlighting that both the evident question of how we should depict Hitler and the background question of Hitler himself are unsettled, and calling for us as viewers to actively join in the debate as a means to avoiding Hitler’s own “solutions” reworked for the modern era, this technique is quite effective.
It most clearly oversteps, and displays hesitancy on the part of the filmmakers, surrounding the figure of David Irving, a disgraced British historian who’s proffered the rather bizarre theory that, though admitting the Holocause occurred, Hitler was not responsible for it, as if the mass murder of 12 million people in dozens of camps under your government is an oopsie happening in the off-hours. Not a great look for a supposed head of state, but Irving’s nonetheless convinced, leading his own tours of Holocaust sites, on some of which our film crew accompanies him. If his disdain for the victims of Nazism and his callous anti-semitic comments throughout the tour, spoken on camera, weren’t enough, Epperlein and Tucker introduce him with a deserved but cumbersome subtitle, as a debunked, leading, far-right Holocaust denier who’s a known associate of British Neo-Nazis. Any slice of footage can be cut out of context and made into a meme opposite either its intent or its meaning in fact, but this tipping of the scale does push a question as to how far the filmmakers are willing to go in this discussion. Professor Deborah Lipstadt, whom Irving unsuccessfully sued for libel when she countered his arguments in her book Denying the Holocaust, capably demonstrates not only the errant historiography of Irving but also the typical, mythologized depiction of Hitler. Well-intentioned if ill-conceived, these films often seek some key moment when anti-semiticism was born in him, as if a parasite totally uncommon to the whole of Europe then or now. “The minute you try to give a rational explanation for an irrational sentiment, you’re gonna be lost,” she states flatly, in what might be the single most profound statement in the entire film.
Nonetheless, as so many who respond with terror, despair, or awe in the wake of the man, the film cannot let him go, and spends an hour or so rifling through various locations postulated as containing the keys to his historical impact. Some are grotesque, such as the perfectly ordinary apartment where he was born which happens to abut a building with a stable, used by some to recall a different, wholly disparate birth, while others offer perhaps a glimmer of how we can deal with his historical presence, like the famous Eagle’s Nest near Berchtesgaden, who’s residents have attempted to erase what they could of Nazi occupation, since cleared by vistors literally carving forest paths with their feet. Most troubling is the report offered by Enno Lenze, director of the Berlin Story Bunker, recreation of the Fuhrerbunker, who thinks the meaning of Hitler has been lost already.
The final, long overdue and best moment of the film comes at the behest of interviewee Professor Saul Friedlander, a survivor who lost his parents in Hitler’s camps, who tells the crew to end their movie in Sobibor. Tall, silent trees fill the frame in a moment of sudden, eerie stillness. There’s no buildings, no columns or massive bunkers. Slowly, archeologist Wojciech Mazurek begins to talk about the work he’s been doing in the forest to unearth what happened here, in a forgotten death camp deep in Poland, a state currently in very active denial of the mass killing of their Jewish population, at the time one of the largest in Europe. He explains how the remnants of the location were covered, the records burned, every attempt made to hide the painstaking work of extermination. It’s an incredible, humbling moment, a reminder that no amount of documentaries can sum up the horror of what transpired all over Europe, and has and could very easily transpire again. As a film, The Meaning of Hitler sometimes can’t quite equal its aims, but faulting such an attempt feels pointless. It’s a necessary, immediate rumination in our very loud age, calling us to a quiet recompense with our historical moment and its antecedents, before we call ourselves to be witnesses, if not participants in the next attempt at national purity.