An intellectual inquiry with burning present-day resonance, The Meaning of Hitler is also a road trip through some of the darkest chapters of European history. In one of the artfully constructed film’s visual motifs, we watch the road itself through a windshield, a not-to-be-ignored Mercedes-Benz hood ornament positioned prominently in the frame. In this context it’s no status symbol, not when the route leads to such places as the Führer’s bunker and the Sobibór death camp.
The complicity of Daimler-Benz and countless other German companies in the Nazi war effort is not the subject of the film, but it is one of the many subtexts coursing through its rich synthesis of history and psychology. Through an exceptional collection of interview subjects, Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s dynamic documentary examines the ways we think about the Holocaust — and the ways we choose not to. As one of those interviewees, novelist Martin Amis, observes, “Our understanding of Hitler is central to our self-understanding. It’s a reckoning you have to make if you’re a serious person.”
Taking its title, and its cues, from a 1978 book by German journalist Sebastian Haffner, the new film from husband-and-wife team Tucker and Epperlein (whose docs include Gunner Palace and Karl Marx City) aims to pierce the aura of legend that has built up around Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. The filmmakers acknowledge a certain trepidation: Are they merely contributing to the cult of personality with yet another piece of work about the Führer?
The answer is a resounding no. Through thoughtful analysis and searching questions — all of it sharply edited by the directors — The Meaning of Hitler shines a cleansing light on a mythology that stretches across a century, from a beer-hall uprising in 1923 Munich to a white supremacist rally in 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia. And beyond.
Haffner, who was born in 1907 Berlin, witnessed the rise of the Nazis firsthand, as did some of the doc’s interviewees. The filmmakers spoke mostly with historians, but their talking heads also include a psychiatrist, a sociologist, a forensic biologist, an archaeologist, a pair of Nazi hunters and, for good measure, a “microphone guru.” The latter, drawing a thought-provoking analogy to the Beatles at Shea Stadium, discusses the importance of technology in the literal and figurative amplification of Hitler’s message.
Epperlein and Tucker are interested in how that message was shaped and received. Hitler’s personal photographer was instrumental in helping him cultivate the image of a man of nature: After posing against scenic vistas of the Bavarian Alps, the Führer ducked out of the bracing mountain air for a car ride home. But nothing burnished his profile like Leni Riefenstahl’s agitprop landmark Triumph of the Will; novelist Francine Prose deflates that film’s souped-up vision of political spectacle with a few words about its kitsch sensibility.
Yet while “history is not propaganda,” as historian Richard Evans points out, the reality is that “you can pretend anything,” as Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld ruefully reminds us. Enter Holocaust denier David Irving, who famously lost his libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt. They’re both interviewed for the film, and Irving, leading some of his followers on a tour of Treblinka, is caught on a hot mic, spewing anti-Semitic “jokes” as he walks through one of the key extermination camps of the Final Solution.
Epperlein and Tucker’s travels also take them to Hitler’s ancestral village in Austria, where a vaguely worded stone marker in front of his place of birth doesn’t mention him by name (the filmmakers note in voiceover, with a touch of triumphant paradox, that “two doors down from the Hitler house is an Arab grocery store”). They visit the apartment complex that occupies the site of his final, subterranean headquarters. At Wolf’s Lair, the Third Reich’s military headquarters on the Eastern Front and now a tourist destination, a guide sings a “funny” insult song about Hitler and his henchmen; her audience includes Irving and some of his fellow doubters, and the number goes over like a lead balloon.
One of the strangest stops on the Hitler world tour is a U.S. Army storehouse of confiscated Nazi art, which includes pieces made in tribute to Hitler as well as his own work. It’s a collection whose existence poses many questions, and which stands as a hauntingly weird analog to the Nazis’ Degenerate Art Exhibition, unmentioned here.
But by far the most haunting aspect of the film is its exploration of the beginnings of the Nazi movement, with historians noting the way most Germans went about their business, thankful for an economic turnaround, while an authoritarian government and its genocidal policies took root. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots to present-day nationalist movements in Europe and the United States, scenes that also figure on the filmmakers’ itinerary. When they note that “We are the people” was a rallying cry 30 years ago for Germans advocating the end of the Berlin Wall and is now a slogan of anti-immigration protesters, the paradox they express is the opposite of triumphant.
In terms of xenophobia, rabble-rousing and psychological profile (“personality” seems too strong a word), the parallels between Hitler and Donald Trump are obvious, and explored at key points in the film. But whatever their similarities — lying, undermining state institutions and aggrandizing oneself are three biggies that Amis ticks off — to stop there would be simplistic.
Today, in the era of Trump, Bolsonaro and Duda, to name just a few authoritarian demagogues, the technology of amplification has changed, and lies spread with the speed of a click. Social media clips included in the doc make chillingly clear that Irving is hardly alone in his assertion that “Hitler did nothing wrong,” as one would-be influencer cheerily asserts. Hitler is just another meme, and the atrocities committed against Jews, Roma, homosexuals and disabled people are easily ignored.
At the heart of The Meaning of Hitler — which arrives as an American president openly attempts to overturn election results — is an urgent warning about the blind spots that have led us to the present moment, and the need to understand the dynamic at work in Hitler’s ascent. In his brilliant 2018 book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari warns that “when people talk of the ills of fascism they often do a poor job, because they tend to depict fascism as a hideous monster while failing to explain what is so seductive about it.”
To focus on Hitler as some freakish aberration is to ignore that seduction, and the crucial role of mass psychology in the Nazis’ popularity. Much as the work of forensic psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis shows that murderers are made, not born, Epperlein and Tucker’s elegant and incisive film insists that there are lessons for all of us in Hitler’s story.
Venue: DOC NYC (Viewfinders)
Production companies: Uwaga Film, Play/Action Pictures, Means of Production
Directors: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
Screenwriters: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
Based on the book The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Haffner
Producers: Dana O’Keefe, Mike Lerner, Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
Executive producers: Jeffrey Lurie, Marie Therese Guirgis, Anthony K. Dobkin
Director of photography: Michael Tucker
Editors: Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Music: Alexander Kliment