NEW YORK — It is good and noble that so many filmmakers are committed to making documentaries that expose and confront the new wave of anti-Semitism and the alt-right. The only ones who suffer are people like me, who write about film for Jewish news outlets.
I watch a lot of these movies and, quite frankly, I’m not itching for any new ones. But one of the best I’ve seen that tackles this issue is “The Meaning of Hitler” from the team of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker. The film was financed in part by Play/Action Pictures, a new company launched by Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Epperlein and Tucker were born on opposite sides of the planet, she in East Germany, he in Hawaii. Their 2004 film “Gunner Palace” brought footage back of soldiers stationed in Iraq that was sorely missing on the evening news. Maintaining contact with an Iraqi journalist who was jailed at Abu Ghraib led to their follow-up, “The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.” As some of the soldiers from “Gunner Palace” returned home, the duo caught up with them again for the 2009 film “How To Fold A Flag.”
Epperlein got more autobiographical for the hyper-stylized, black-and-white (and, at times, kinda funny?) look at her father’s suicide and East Germany’s self-destructive obsession with surveillance with “Karl Marx City” in 2017. Their sharp and energetic shooting style has reached new heights for an unlikely subject, “The Meaning of Hitler.”
Sebastian Haffner’s concise 1978 book “The Meaning of Hitler” examines Nazi ideology from various perspectives, and has seen a sharp increase in sales in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump. This film isn’t so much an adaptation of Haffner, but what composers would call a variation. It cleverly takes the heavy concepts and makes them visual, retracing Hitler’s footsteps (while shooting through a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament) and adding commentary from great scholars.
Their interview subjects include authors and professors like Martin Amis, Yehuda Bauer, Saul Friedlander, Deborah Lipstadt, Francine Prose, and Klaus Theweleit. There is also the nauseating inclusion of Jew-hater David Irving, who has grown substantially more revolting since the last time you’ve seen footage of him.
The film draws parallels from the 1940s to today, in ways that are not really up for debate. A section on what Hitler’s use of cutting-edge microphones did for him juxtaposed with Trump’s versatility on Twitter is just plain interesting, and even folks who voted for the guy would have to agree.
I spoke with Epperlein and Tucker via Zoom, about two weeks before both the United States election and the premiere of the film, which is available to stream in North America as part of the DOC NYC festival, from November 11 through November 19. (This year’s festival is being held virtually.) The following has been edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: In your career one film frequently leads directly to the next. “Karl Marx City” was a fascinating, personal look at growing up in East Germany, so I wonder, Petra, have you known, as a German filmmaker, that one day you’d probably end up having “to deal with Hitler”?
Petra Epperlein: As a German it is hard to avoid, but ultimately it came from reading the [Sebastian Haffner] book many years ago, and coming upon it again in 2016, after the election in America, and seeing the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Also seeing the new right wing party in Germany, AfD, gaining momentum.
One of the experts you speak to is Professor Winfried Nerdinger at the “Brown House,” which is a historical center in Munich, and he says “we don’t want to make Nazi history interesting.” But as filmmakers, you need to keep an audience engaged. Your film has a very distinctive aesthetic. It has energy, it has rhythm, it has a visual pop. And here’s an expert in the field pretty much telling you not to do that.
Michael Tucker: On our blackboard we wrote the phrase “The Hitler Problem.” Here is someone whose ideology is so repulsive and repugnant, and yet we are enraptured by it. So many people have gotten trapped in this “Hitler-Industrial Complex” or “Nazi Cinematic Universe.” We all say we’re against this thing, but we’re enamored of their aesthetic.
Decades ago Saul Friedlander wrote about this problem. Representation of Nazism and the Holocaust has created a new genre of entertainment — which is really quite strange.
Representation of Nazism and the Holocaust has created a new genre of entertainment — which is really quite strange
Of course the biggest problem is that most films on this topic are filled with archival footage. There’s something sick about that. One thing that a lot of people don’t know is that footage from Germany is held by the Federal Archives [Bundesarchiv]. They still licensed that stuff, and they can charge 13,000 euros per minute for it. In a way it is unbelievable that this stuff is actually a commodity.
So we struggled to try to make, you know, “not your father’s Hitler movie.”
PE: And keep in mind that all footage of Hitler was produced by Hitler himself. He made it to propagate his ideology and to preserve it for generations to come. So when we make documentaries based on this material, we are, in a way, propagating the propaganda. Not that no one should use it, but it’s important to think how it is used, and not yet another series of “Hitler in Color” or whatever.
It’s hard to do this sort of thing without including “Triumph of the Will,” but then you begin your own narrative of taking a road trip in Hitler’s footsteps. But also make it visually “snappy,” which is also how you describe the act of reading the book. How much did the book guide your choices in the look or the editing?
MT: The book posed challenges. It’s really short and really smart. But what was bad for the world was but good for us, in a way. The key ideas in Haffner’s text kept coming to fruition. No one is saying “Trump is Hitler,” but it quickly becomes clear how some people are borrowing from fascism’s playbook. We can look around and see, aha, this is how someone like Hitler becomes possible.
It quickly becomes clear how some people are borrowing from fascism’s playbook
We show Haffner’s ideas about chaos, how Hitler was not about building the state, but dismantling it. And then you see each day how Trump is threatening to get rid of the FBI director, it’s all completely antithetical to typical American norms. We wanted to weave that in without overstating it.
You do a very good job of not crying wolf, but show some undeniable, and even noncontroversial one-to-one comparisons between the two leaders. One of your experts, Prof. Yehuda Bauer, basically sums up that a potential for Hitlerism exists in anyone, and it’s part of life’s goal to challenge that. And when he says it, it all sounds so simple and so obvious.
MT: We met Bauer early in the process. People have been talking about Hitler and the Holocaust for over 70 years now. It’s such a huge topic. Here’s a man who was 93 when we spoke to him, and he has such a clarity. He is so dismissive of what some call “Hitlerology” — trying to come up with explanations. And he’ll say that Hitler was just a guy. He had problems like we all have problems, like the Nazis had problems. He was perfectly normal. You don’t have to look for any “organic” reasons.
A lot of people don’t like to hear that. They like to think he had an evil gene, and this couldn’t potentially sprout again, that Hitler was a once-in-a-millennium.
MT: Look at today, look at QAnon. It has huge support, if you can believe it, in Germany now. There was a huge rally of anti-maskers and conspiracy adherents that made it all the way to the Reichstag led by some neo-Nazis. These conspiracy theories are just old conspiracy theories made new. In people’s hearts is the potential for true darkness.
It’s weird because I’ve always had the belief that Germany, or at least West Germany, had done a good job dealing with a truth and reconciliation attitude towards World War II. Is that something that has changed in the last generation?
PE: As a German I’ll say that we are faced with this part of our past, and the country does a good job. But I think my generation perhaps believes that “we’ve dealt with this” and that we somehow overcame it, and it will never come back. So that’s part of the shock to see the vigorous anti-Semitism and the deep hatred against foreigners. And as soon as people get a platform, like the AfD, it’s shocking; they received 25 percent of the vote in the last election. They are represented in our parliament.
But then you speak to Prof. Bauer who has the wisdom of a 93-year-old who explains that these thoughts and movements are always present, and it is our responsibility to battle with them constantly. It’s never over.
When you talk about battle, let’s talk about Holocaust-denier David Irving. When your film first cuts to him I’ll be honest, my first thought was “oh, this schmuck again?” But, like you say, the case is made that we need to confront these people. You really got some outrageous footage of him. I’m just curious as to how you got him on board? And how difficult was it not to just call him a pig and storm off?
PE: We had two or three days with him, and they were the most terrible, difficult days. And it’s not just him, it’s his tour group of neo-Nazis. Younger people. It was so vile to be around them.
MT: We definitely debated for the very reason you said. “Why do we want to see this schmuck?” But Haffner was one of the first ones to call Irving out, back in 1977 or ’78. They had a famous debate, so we figured we would reach out to him. Petra wrote him and he wrote back he would do it “although you may be a Jew.”
That’s what he does. Everything is to provoke a reaction. He’s been doing it for decades. The things he says are so hurtful, but it was important to see an example of the weaponization of history. We don’t need to take away free speech, but we must address what is fact. This is where the slippery slope is.
And the disinformation has metastasized, of course. With Irving, years ago, there was the patina of scholarship. And now, with the Pepe the Frog-style trolling, it’s a game of irony, and being edgy.
MT: Right, the “ha ha Jew joke,” like the gamer girl we show clips of, who attended the Charlottesville rally. When people pay her on her Twitch stream, they pay her “shekels.” Everything is wrapped in layers in dark anti-Semitism, to the point that it has lost all meaning.
So you have Irving walking around giving tours saying shocking things, then you have this digital world where it’s been normalized to a degree.
PE: And for someone who is maybe 12 years old, this will be the first exposure to Hitler, in the context of a joke in a gaming room. How many would then go on to get actual historic knowledge of them?
This dovetails a bit with the theory about the “Radical Loser.”
MT: This is an idea from the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The comparison with the current movements is a common feeling of perceived victimhood. “We are the victims. Our speech is being silenced.” After the failed coup attempt in Munich, there are posters everywhere of Hitler with tape over his mouth.
This led to these dark sinister Jewish forces are knifing us in the back. Today it’s all “Soros,” right? Nothing has changed.
You include one of my heroes in this film, Prof. Deborah Lipstadt.
MT: More than anyone else she speaks clearly about anti-Semitism as a conspiracy theory. An invention. A lot of people don’t get this simplicity. There exists — and I’ll just say it the way someone right wing would say it — that “there’s something wrong with Jews that somehow makes this all a little bit logical.” And her whole thing is completely discarding that, and creating a new way of thinking. She explains how anti-Semitism’s whole purpose is to create hurt. We saw her right after the Pittsburgh shooting, too, so it was painful.
As you say, you can turn on the History Channel at any time and see Hitler, but what were some other films that you looked at while making this?
MT: Everyone should watch Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah.” We tried to see him in Paris but he died. He was a little, um, problematic, but the film is a must-see.
PE: It isn’t a documentary, but “Son of Saul.”
MT: Another documentary is “Swastika,” from the early 1970s. The filmmaker is Philip Mora, who is Australian, and it used all the color footage that Eva Braun made. That team found it by accident, and then hired lip-readers to try to read Hitler’s lips as he’s standing on the balcony. This was part of that 1970s “Hitler Wave,” a resurgence in interest, what Susan Sontag called “fascinating Fascism.”
PE: We also watched Soviet films, from immediately after the war. It’s fascinating to see a 1948 production, to see how the Soviets portrayed that world.
MT: The Soviet representation of Hitler was fascinating. Stalin had this whole thing, which we include in the film, about how he didn’t shoot himself, he poisoned himself “like a bitch.” Really saying he wasn’t a real man, a whole machismo angle. Of course, so much of our understanding about Hitler is from wartime propaganda — ideas like his alleged Jewish roots, or a drug addict, or he only had one testicle. In many cases, these are also fabrications.
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel