Documentary Review: Uncovering “The Meaning of Hitler,” then and now

In this age of Charlottesvilles, here and abroad, of “Jo Jo Rabbit,” “The Hitler Channel” and Trumpism, the world is “beyond the point where people have lost the meaning of (Adolf) Hitler,” one of the chorus of experts in the new documentary “The Meaning of Hitler” laments.

He’s a mythic slur applied far and wide to racists, authoritarians and to pretty much any “leader” interviewed by Tucker Carlson.

So perhaps its time for experts, from historians and archeologists to psychologists and those versed in propaganda aesthetics and rhetorical, even microphone technique to weigh in. They can give us an accurate picture and point out the ways we’ve let Hitler be distorted into the Internet darling of anyone seeking to use imagery, words or political stance to “shock,” get attention, and tap into the “hidden under a rock” corners of Greater Deplorabilistan.

Oh no, “not another ‘archival’ (WWII/Nazi/Hitler) documentary,” narrator and co-director Petra Epperlein laments. But she and her “Gunner Palace,” “How to Fold a Flag” and “11/8/16” co-director Michael Tucker do their utmost to find “Meaning” and make this Hitler documentary stand out from the fascist fetishizing that covers whole cable and streaming channels dedicated to the subject.

We see the German Epperlein reading from all the cautionary books that describe “where we are now” on a cable car, including “1984” and finishing with Sebastian Haffner’s definitive study, which provides the film with its direction and its title, “The Meaning of Hitler.” Haffner was a German contemporary of Hitler who saw the rise of Nazism and dissected its techniques, appeal and “meaning” pretty much in real time, once he escaped to Great Britain.

We meet psychologists who tick off the wide range of “diagnoses” of Hitler, post-mortem, from “bipolar” and “Oedipus complex” to “hysteria” and “megalomania,” and then argue, with great credibility, that such “explanations” are excuses. “Millions” have these delusions, only one committed mass genocide. 

We are “rationalizing” this “normal” man, elevating him into a “monster,” letting him off the hook for his all-too-human failings, the film maintains.

And we see and hear novelist Martin Amis, one of the great men of letters of our time, cut straight to the chase, right in the film’s opening interview.

“You might as well get on with his similarities to Trump.”

That list is ticked off all the way through “Meaning of Hitler,” from “fanatical cleanliness” to delusions of “genius” to “ignorant” and only comfortable around lackeys scared to tell either Hitler or Trump how intellectually limited, cruel and stupid they are.

The most telling of these is an aside tossed out by one Hitler expert relatively late in the film. “Hitler had no friends,” and if that isn’t Trump in a sentence, no sentence can make that claim.

I was struck by the microphone historian consulted on how the “Hitler Bottle” microphone of the era became something the public speaker Hitler mastered like a great song stylist, by the discussion of “Triumph of the Will” as “pure (Nazi) kitsch” that became “the most imitated film of all time” (“Star Wars,” etc. are sampled) and yet, viewed as it is, “makes your flesh creep.”

As clips of the many screen interpretations of Hitler flicker by, we’re reminded that a big part of “the myth” is the way no filmmaker has shown us the ugly, gruesome way he and Eva Braun met their deaths, always cutting away, as if we have no right to gaze upon The Prophet at his feeblest.

The world’s most infamous Holocaust denier and anti-Semite David Irving agrees to meet with the filmmakers, but only at Mazury, Poland (home of Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” bunker), only after he’s ascertained that Petra isn’t “Jewish.” He physically bristles as a tour guide jokingly sings a song about German leaders’ genitals that was popular in the British Army during WWII. And afterwards, Irving repeats his usual dismissals of what Hitler knew about the Holocaust, the totality of that genocide and his own virulent anti-Semitism.

Then, still miked-up, he walks ahead and chats with a young fan, and everything he just said on camera unravels. What a creep.

Anti-Semitism is described as the ultimate “conspiracy theory,” and debunked, point by painstaking point.

All of which sets “The Meaning of Hitler” apart from any other “Hitler” or “Nazism” documentary you’ve ever seen. This film doesn’t just ask “How it happened” and show the regimented rallies, the rabid fans, the pageantry, discipline and fascist fashion sense. It breaks down how Hitler manipulated the way the audience was organized so that they’d have to stand or how he appealed to “imagined victimhood,” and how the Koch Brothers, McConnells, Zuckerbergs (who appears here at his most disingenuous) and “elites” of the day embraced him for all that they personally stood to gain from his actions.

If you see just one “Hitler” film this year, make it this one.

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast: Martin Amis, Yehuda Baeur, Richard Evans, Francine Pose, David Irving, Matilda Tucker, Saul Friedländer, Deborah Lipstadt, many others

Credits: Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, narrated by Epperlein, scripted by Tucker, based on the book by Sebastian Haffner. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:32

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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