New Documentary Asks Why Obsession with Hitler EnduresBreaking News
tags: Hitler, documentaries, Nazism
“Is it possible to make a film like this without contributing to the Nazi Cinematic Universe?”
This line of narration comes early in “The Meaning of Hitler,” a fiery new documentary about the persistent hold Nazism has 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 book giant’s many onscreen superhero characters. Like Marvel fandom, Hitler and Nazi obsession encourages cult-like devotion to a sprawling, interconnected alternate reality — except the Nazi Cinematic Universe’s shared fantasy is that Hitler had the right idea about the Jews.
Based on the classic book-length essay by the German journalist Raimund Pretzel (published under his pseudonym of Sebastian Haffner), “The Meaning of Hitler” is a globetrotting excavation into the heart of our society’s fascination with Nazis, antisemitism and fascist ideology. Why does he remain so visible today? Why have we anointed him as a figure of unique evil, rather than an evil that could be replicated in the modern day? And why do so many people still seem to admire or — worse — unconsciously emulate him?
Using Pretzel’s original text as a jumping-off point, Epperlein and Tucker throw side-eyes at the entertainment and political apparatuses that have propped up the Hitler myth in the decades since his bunker suicide. Their efforts, like the “Nazi Cinematic Universe” line, simultaneously hope to be 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 befitting an internet skim (or one of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda videos the film takes care to dissect). Large text flashes on screen (words such as “Savior” and “Evil”) as we move through space and time at breakneck pace. The viewer sees archival footage, which collides with present-day memorials, YouTube videos and clips from Western art (from “The Producers” to “Star Wars”). We are in Hitler’s bunker; now we’re at the site of his birth; wait, now we’re at a World Cup celebration in France; now we’re driving down the empty COVID-afflicted streets of New York; now we’re at the site of the Sobibor death camp, which the Nazis took care to destroy any trace of, and which therefore makes a handy metaphor for the dangers of forgetting or denying the lessons of the past.