Was Hitler gay? Ever since German scholar Lothar Machtan pondered the question in his 2001 book, the matter has shadowed much recent discussion about the dictator. Documakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato provide both a filmed book report on Machtan's controversial tome and a platform for taking Machtan's argument seriously.

Was Hitler gay? Ever since German scholar Lothar Machtan pondered the question in his 2001 book, “The Hidden Fuhrer,” the matter has shadowed much recent discussion about the dictator. With “The Hidden Fuhrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler’s Sexuality,” documakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato provide both a filmed book report on Machtan’s controversial tome and a platform for taking Machtan’s argument seriously. History seldom gets more red-hot, and, following Cinemax airings in the spring, fest dates and vid release will keep tongues wagging.

Some of Machtan’s most impassioned critics are gay historians who are understandably concerned that any connection between homosexuality and the man who began WW2 and butchered millions is about the worst thing that could happen to the cause of gay pride.

However, pic was made by gay filmmakers (Bailey’s and Barbato’s range of work includes “101 Rent Boys,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Party Monster”); it’s unspooling at gay-themed fests; and it concludes with arguments by gay activists and thinkers that historians have long downplayed or ignored gay subject matter — Hitler included.

Given this context, “The Hidden Fuhrer” effectively neutralizes the notion that Machtan’s project is merely gay-bashing with footnotes.

Though he admits there’s no definitive proof that Hitler was homosexual, Machtan lays out several interesting strands of evidence. The strands begin with Hitler’s teen friend, August Kubizek, whose amply-quoted memoirs teasingly suggest adoration that turned to love, including descriptions of a kiss at a train station and being naked together in a cabin in the woods.

Later in Vienna, after breaking with Kubizek for unknown reasons, Hitler lived in a male-only hostel known as a gay hangout. Most explicit of all is an item in a book by Hans Mend describing Hitler having sex with buddy Ernst Schmidt while soldiering in WWI.

Memoirs by Eugen Dollmann and Ernst Hanfstaengel report, respectively, of Hitler paying for male lovers and of Hitler having sex with his leading Nazi cohort Rudolf Hess. His unfulfilled relationship with Eva Braun could be interpreted to suggest a man unable to please women, something also indicated by a bumbling pass he made at his favorite filmmaker, Leni Reifenstahl.

Pic touches on salacious ground with a vague description of Hitler’s alleged molestation of Richard Wagner’s grandson, a story strongly believed by family member Gottfried Wagner.

Perhaps more dubious is a section exploring Hitler’s obsession with the arts, especially Wagnerian opera, Greco-Roman sculpture and grand-scaled architecture. Even with a homoerotic reading of some Nazi art, such concerns hardly point to a particular sexual leaning; like Italian Fascism’s obsession with faux-Roman design, the Nazi aesthetic is as imbedded in imperialist romantic nostalgia as it is in a grand view of excessive maleness.

The inference that Hitler ordered crimes — from bloody internal purges to the mass murder of European gays and lesbians — to cover up his own true identity as a gay is a stretch. This is one of Machtan’s theories that has led historians, such as Geoffrey Giles and Rudiger Lautmann (who debates Machtan on camera), to scorn his beliefs.

Nonetheless, Bailey and Barbaro, who are a long way from their pop culture and club kids exposes, handle the complex, incendiary material with skill and remarkable balance. No main archive credit is provided, but assembly and breadth of historical footage may be pic’s high point.

The Hidden Fuhrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler's Sexuality

Production

A Cinemax Reellife presentation of a World of Wonder production. Produced by Gabriel Rotello, John Hoffman, Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato. Executive producer, Sheila Nevins. Directed by Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato.

Crew

Camera (color, B&W), Michael Rose, Christian Menofer, Harry Frith; editor, Blake West; sound, Craig Evans, Bernhard Mehl, Eric Liljestrand; research, Annika Leichtweiss; associate producers, Caroline Stack, Tommy Bowden. Reviewed on videocassette, Los Angeles, July 16, 2004. (In Outfest, Los Angeles.) Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Lothar Machtan, Geoffrey Giles, Rudiger Lautmann, Michael Bronski, Lawrence Mass, Ron Rosenbaum, Rainer Herrn, Ralf Dose, Gertrude Weisker, Gottfried Wagner, Frederic Spotts, Jonathan Petropoulos, Michelangelo Signorile, Peter McGough, Peter Loewenberg, Martin Duberman, Cathy Renna. Narrator: Marlene Sanders. (English, German dialogue)

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