When a documentary is called “The Meaning of Hitler,” there are two things you know off the bat. One is that the film probably won’t live up to that title — and doesn’t have to, because how could it? The other thing you know is that it’s trying for something audacious, placing itself on the high bar of who-was-Adolf-Hitler? meditation. And that’s a good thing, since for all the mystery that still surrounds Hitler we do know a great deal about him, and we want a movie like this one to jolt us with the shock of the new. The author Martin Amis, who’s one of the most compelling people interviewed here, says that if you can expand our knowledge of Hitler by just a millimeter, you’ve done something. We go into “The Meaning of Hitler” craving that millimeter of insight, of intrigue and revelation. And the film provides it. It ruminates on Hitler and the Third Reich in ways that churn up your platitudes.
Here, for instance, is an offbeat historical detail that I found weirdly resonant. Hitler, as we know, was one of the most hypnotic orators of the 20th century; his speeches were frothing arias of seduction and rage. But none of that would have happened in quite the way it did had it not been for the invention of a revolutionary microphone that became the prototype for the microphones that would propel the music industry. The old mics used carbon chips, which meant that you had to be no more than an inch away from them or your voice would drop out. In the ’20s, public speakers stood stock-still, glued to their mics. The new microphone allowed Hitler to use his arms and body, to stand back and lean in, to give a thrusting gesticulating physical-vocal performance. Without it, he would still have been Hitler, but it was a case of technology not just lifting evil but giving form to it.
Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, the husband-and-wife writer-director team (“Gunner Palace”) who made “The Meaning of Hitler,” have conceived the film as a free-form, go-with-the-flow meditation on the Nazi era, made in the exploratory road-movie spirit of Werner Herzog’s recent documentaries. Like Herzog, Epperlein and Tucker listen to their impulses, trotting off to key locations — Hitler’s birthplace, the art college that rejected him, the bunker where he killed himself — and talking to the freest thinkers they can find.
One observer claims that if you switch on German television, there’s a 95 percent chance that you’ll stumble onto a Hitler documentary. It might be about Hitler’s friends, Hitler’s household, Hitler in private, 10 things you didn’t know about Hitler, his dogs, his women, his cars, his food, his secret weapons, his drug habit. Is this evidence of an attempt to understand him, or is it the lingering of his cult? Maybe both. One of the film’s themes is that Hitler, more than ever, remains a presence in Germany and in the world, which suggests something basic and disturbing: that the impact of Hitler and Nazism, the iconography of it, the power and the mythology — that all of that may now be having a greater impact on the generations coming up than the actual horrors that Hitler perpetrated.
It all ties into the rise, and increasing omnipotence, of fantasy culture. The horror of the Third Reich was reality at its most hideous. But Hitler, in his insidious way, represented a transporting fantasy, to the point that some may now view him as a superhero of hate. As Martin Amis puts it, “Part of the spell of great evildoers is that they have this capacity to astonish. You can’t believe anyone’s going to behave as demonically as that. And that in itself confers a kind of aura.”
The movie keeps circling back to the 1978 book “The Meaning of Hitler,” written by the German author Sebastian Haffner (a pseudonym for the journalist Raimund Pretzel, born in 1907 and a witness to the rise of the Nazis), who pointed out that Hitler lacked the things that normally add weight and meaning to life. He had no occupation. He had no friends, which is striking for a politician. He was, famously, a failed artist, and we’re given an analysis of one of the “four watercolor” paintings that got him rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. It’s painted with a graphic precision and feeling for light and shadow that indicate that Hitler, had he been born a few decades later, had the skills to become a commercial artist, if not quite a fine artist.
But Hitler proved to be the first twisted artist of mass media. In “Triumph of the Will,” of course, he employed Leni Riefenstahl to turn the Nazis into a sci-fi dream of lockstep delirium. “The Nazis,” one scholar tells us, “had a feeling that they were acting in some huge historical play — for the future, for history.” The film suggests that Hitler’s secret promise to the German people was that in the future, they could do the killing that was in their hearts. By 1978, when Haffner published his book, we would probably say that they were wrong. The Nazis, after all, had been defeated. The Third Reich, which was supposed to last 1,000 years, was crushed before it began.
Yet now, in our relatively young century, the Nazis have begun to loom larger — as myth and metaphor, as sick-dream fascist reverie. They were destroyed, but they cast a dark shadow. The most chilling section of the movie is one in which the filmmakers, posing as a sympathetic audience, gain access to David Irving, the British historian and Holocaust denier who has already had his 15 minutes of infamy. So why give him more air time? Because the filmmakers, tagging along with Irving during one of his profiteering tours of the death camp at Treblinka (where 900,000 were killed), do something more than expose one scoundrel’s anti-Semitism. They demonstrate how Holocaust denial, once on the fringes, is now spreading like a virus, becoming a featured piece of historical fake news.
As the historian Deborah Lipstadt (who sued Irving for libel) puts it in the film, “Anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory.” Indeed, as codified in the early 20th century by the fraudulent document “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” it’s more or less the original conspiracy theory. We hear Irving and a couple of his tour patrons chortle at the slogan that famously adorned the gate of Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”), which Irving claims was a joke on the Jewish prisoners. “The Jews don’t like any kind of manual work,” he says. “They just like writing receipts.” Irving then adds, “All these victims, it never occurs to them to ask themselves, ‘Why us?'” That’s a revealing comment. It indicates that if you look under the rock of Holocaust denial, what you’ll find is the slimy reality of Holocaust endorsement.
What feels very now, as documented in “The Meaning of Hitler,” are the testimonials of media-blinkered hipsters — in the U.S. and in Europe — who believe that Jews are the root of all evil. In the film, the sly wizened ninetysomething professor Yehuda Bauer says, “One of the great problems that people today have who are educated in liberal or semi-liberal societies is they don’t understand how people can believe that stuff.” We then see a clip of the YouTube superstar PewDiePie, on one of his videos, making light of a sign that says “Death to all Jews.”
To say that Nazism could make a comeback, or is in fact making one, may not sound like much of an insight. But Prof. Bauer’s point is simple and profound, and it’s where “The Meaning of Hitler” finds its boldest impact. “Hitler,” he says, “was a perfectly normal person. His psychological problems were no different from those of many millions of others.” Is that the hidden key to it all? It sounds too easy, and is probably a knowing exaggeration, but the film goes on to make the point that the barbarism of the Nazis was many things but that ultimately it was human. It’s something we’re capable of — what people did, and could do again. That’s the meaning of Hitler.