Perhaps the most monstrous figure in history was a movie buff who watched two to three pictures a night and learned the limited English and French he knew from the flicks he screened in his private projection room, including ones banned by his own regime. But which Hollywood film was Adolf Hitler’s favorite?
Despite widespread reports that he loved 1933’s King Kong and 1935’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (reports based on a disgruntled aide’s memoir), there’s no evidence he ever saw them, according to Bill Niven, the author of Hitler and Film: The Führer’s Hidden Passion.
“The speculation about King Kong is remarkable,” says Niven, a professor at England’s Nottingham Trent University. “Perhaps people like that choice because King Kong was a trapped animal, similar to Germany as Hitler saw it after it was shackled by the Treaty of Versailles,” the 1919 peace pact signed at the end of World War I.
In the days before television, Hitler made the most of his personal screening room, where he’d invite friends and colleagues to watch pictures with him, their prints usually supplied by his propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. It was standard practice for him to have dinner and then arrange screenings, with an endless appetite for film that terrified some of his closest adjutants, who weren’t accustomed to binge-viewing. His close ally and armaments minister Albert Speer noted how much the pictures helped Hitler relax, but dreaded having to endure them with him.
“Very often he was shown a list of films that were on offer for the evening and very often they were shown in English,” says Niven. “Sometimes he watched with subtitles, sometimes in the original; he watched quite a number of English films in the original. He had several adjutants and they say what knowledge he had of foreign language, which was very limited, came from film.”
Ironically, many of the movies he liked best were made by Jews (director Fritz Lang, in fact, was asked to run his studio but fled to America instead). They were also largely banned to the German public. But which picture did he like best?
That’s been muddied by false information spread in the years since his death. In 2008, a Norwegian museum director claimed he had proof that Hitler had drawn images of Snow White. The Hitler drawings turned out to be as much of a hoax as the “Hitler diaries” that were allegedly found in 1983, 60 volumes in all forged by the illustrator Konrad Kujau.
Other dubious reports include one, spread by Hitler’s pilot, that his boss was squeamish when he watched certain films and would cover his eyes at the sight of animals being hunted; another report, however, said he wasn’t squeamish at all and enjoyed seeing men torn to pieces by the very animals they were meant to hunt. There’s no evidence to support either allegation.
Nor is there evidence to indicate he made any moves on the actresses in his preferred German pictures — unlike Goebbels, who would pounce on any nubile performer.
“We don’t know if he had a favorite Hollywood film,” says Niven. “From research I did in the Federal Archives in Berlin, it’s clear he was a great fan of Laurel & Hardy, particularly Swiss Miss, Block-Heads and Way Out West. His adjutants kept a list of films he watched, and sometimes they contain Hitler’s reaction, which would be sent back to Goebbels.”
Continues Niven: “He said 1938’s Capriccio, which includes a brothel scene, was a piece of shit: ‘Mist in höchster Potenz.'”
More favored were Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and the Mickey Mouse films, which Hitler liked so much that Goebbels gave him a present of them. He asked for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be sent to his country estate, the Berghof, but, says Niven, “We don’t know if he watched it.”
Once the war began, his viewing decreased, but he did see 1939’s Gone With the Wind — a leading candidate for his favorite, given that his pilot, chauffeur and several aides mentioned it. Says Niven, “He told Goebbels, ‘Now that, that is something our own people should also be able to do.'”
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.