“Our understanding of Hitler is centered on ourself,” muses novelist Martin Amis in the recent documentary The Meaning of Hitler (based on the 1978 book of the same by Sebastian Haffner). This may seem obvious. Decades after World War II and the Holocaust, the Nazi dictator remains an object of widespread fascination. What other reason could there be for this than self-obsession? With countless works of art and documents made about Adolf Hitler, picking over even the smallest biographical details, we would have found a satisfying explanation for his life and the horrors he led by now if there were one. Instead of reflecting on the lessons from the past, pop culture prefers to feed into our collective ego. “Who was Hitler?” becomes a less interesting question than “Why do we care so much?”
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 1977 442-minute documentary Hitler: A Film from Germany examines this question from a maximalist, anti-realist approach, featuring a cacophonic multiplicity of angles. The banal truth of Hitler’s life explodes across various art forms, voices, and artworks. It’s an astonishing and rigorous work which concludes, among other things, that Hitler was a man who became a god primarily through the culture that grew around him. Writing about the film, Susan Sontag said, “Convinced that there is a morally (and aesthetically) correct way for a filmmaker to confront Nazism, Syberberg can make no use of any of the stylistic conventions of fiction that pass for realism. Neither can he rely on documents to show how it ‘really’ was. Like its simulation as fiction, the display of atrocity in the form of photographic evidence risks being tacitly pornographic.”
Like Claude Lanzmann with 1985’s Shoah (but also so unlike its formal restraint), Syberberg has an implicit understanding that representational images are insufficient to depict the most horrific impulses of the human spirit. To depict Hitler means contributing to his sense of grandeur in the imagination. As one title card in The Meaning of Hitler asserts, it all contributes to “fascinating fascism.” Our unwillingness to face our own perverted obsessions inadvertently perpetuate the myths and propagandistic march of Nazism and Hitler. Part of fascism’s persistence lies in grandiose Hollywood images that were intended to villainize but instead unintentionally glamorize. In representational cinema bent on relatability, many prefer (consciously or not) to identify with monsters over victims.
One sequence in The Meaning of Hitler demonstrates this perfectly. The filmmakers scrutinize how Hitler’s suicide is usually portrayed in film. In scenes from multiple movies and shows, we watch as a camera pans away from him, a door closes, and a distant gunshot is heard. His death is granted a measure of respect and dignity. But what about his regime’s victims? How many gruesome, cruel, explicit deaths have we witnessed in films about the Holocaust? How many indignities are shown in vivid, horrific detail? While the film is contentious and not without its faults, the graphically violent end Hitler meets in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is more than a shallow revenge fantasy. It highlights the profane picking and choosing of who is and who is not subjected to violence in most Hollywood productions.
Much like the shallow rebranding of true crime as somehow empowering, victim-centric, and educational, films about Hitler often try to reframe our prurient interests as products of concern and caution. It’s as if fixating on intimate details of Hitler’s life will somehow prevent another genocidal fascist from rising to power. If only we could recognize the signs, maybe lives could be saved. Such works that unabashedly center violence and power act as though audiences are tuning in for something beyond perverse curiosity.
More “respectable” works about him point to the idea that he was just a human being. 2004’s Downfall, starring Bruno Ganz as Hitler in his final days, portrays him as a weak, spitting man, ravaged by hatred and self-pity. The tacit understanding that to paint Hitler as anything but a human would only serve to immortalize him further motivates these types of portrayals. We pore over the details of personality, biography, and circumstances as if that will guarantee someone like him will never arise again, as if genocide were only a thing of the past.
Beneath this impulse is a search for “proof” that people are fundamentally good, that individuals like Hitler are aberrations that can be avoided with the right cultural prophylactics. This framing ignores the societal patterns, ideas, and systems that allow fascism to arise and persist. Rather than reflect on the world at large, the hunt for the meaning of Hitler turns the reflection inward. Collective culpability in governments and systems that abuse and oppress are ignored in favor of personal ego. Most of these works come to the same conclusion: Despite his humanity, Hitler was bad, but “we” are good.
The Meaning of Hitler reflects on these questions, adopting a metatextual framing that questions the form of the Hitler documentary itself. As a work about Hitler, it becomes an exercise that exposes why certain approaches work (testimony and contemporary footage) and others don’t (archival footage and glib self-awareness). By adopting what can only be termed as a relatively “pop” documentary approach that is more playful than rigorous, the film often feels slight and occasionally cloying. Yet the film is not without its strengths. The interviews in particular are often incisive and intimate. In the final moments, Yehuda Bauer, a famed scholar and historian of the Holocaust, discusses the normal humanity of the Nazis, suggesting in passing that “we also act out our ideas.” Heavy with intention, this thought lingers as the credits roll. At what cost do we act out our ideas, and to what end?