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Hitler, baby, one more time

The Meaning of Hitler deserves your attention

The Meaning of Hitler: There's a reason they call it Über.
The Meaning of Hitler: There's a reason they call it Über.

There should never be another fictionalized account of the Holocaust put to film. The temptation to sentimentalize the atrocities too often proves impossible to resist. (As Prof. Deborah Lipstadt points out, “The minute you’re trying to give a rational explanation for an irrational sentiment, you’re going to be lost.”) The same can be said of the myriad of documentary releases that withstand the lure of emotionalism, but stop short of shedding new light on the subject. And yet: just when I vow to swear off films about Hitler and the Holocaust, out comes another film about the subject that’s worth watching. Not only is The Meaning of Hitler deserving of your attention, it joins Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as one of the most fascinatingly original takes on the subject of what made Hitler Hitler, and why a nation paid any mind to a radical loser.

For years, I was the first to come to Trump’s defense whenever the Hitler comparison arose. I felt the same way two decades ago when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin frivolously likened W to H: it was too easy. Hitler snuffed out 20 million lives; all Trump ever killed was a 20 oz. butt steak. That all began to change with his “good people on both sides” assessment of Charlottesville. And as I see it, January 6 forever joined Dolf ‘n Don at the hip. It doesn’t take filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (Gunnar’s Palace) but 125 seconds to mention Trump by name, and still I found myself asking, “Why so long?”

Too often, when people speak of Hitler’s genocide, the body count stops at 6 millon, the number of Jews sent to their deaths. Jews were no doubt #1 on Hitler’s hate parade, but it should come as no surprise that Der Fuhrer was an equal opportunity despiser. There is no exact accounting for the number of lives lost. According to various sources, between 1933-1945, seven out of every one hundred people living in occupied Europe died at the hands of the Nazis. Democide: Death by Government, the University of Hawaii’s exhaustive account of state-sanctioned slaughter, notes that in addition to Jews, Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 10 million Slavs, 300,000 Gypsies, 220,000 homosexuals, and millions more French, Dutch, Serbs, Slovenes, Czechs, etc. And don’t forget the 173,500 “mercy killings” of physically and mentally disabled Germans unfit to fight for the glory of the Third Reich. Next time Hitler comes up in conversation, please don’t stop at 6 million, not when the actual number more than triples that.

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We begin in a railway gift shop, in search of some light reading on which to base our 92-minute intercontinental journey. Looks like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is on backorder, but there is a copy of Sebastian Haffner’s eponymous deep dig into the seven faces of the man whom Martin Amis labels the “historical figure who not one historian claims to understand.” Amis goes on to pinpoint what he calls a “phoentical cleanliness” in both Hitler and Trump’s deliveries and the open acknowledgement that there is no downside to lying. Conditions were such that it made it possible for Hitler and Trump to represent large numbers of people, and the two quickly replaced the government with chaos. How does one solve a problem like Hitler? Ask Haffner, and he’ll tell you, “For the world to be done with Hitler, it had to kill not just the man, but the legend as well.”

It’s rare for the experience of listening to historians and philosophers converse on camera to be this compelling. Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Theiss-Abendroth sums up his prognosis with, “In the course of history, Hitler has been assigned almost any psychiatric diagnosis that’s available: Oedipus complex, megalomania, bipolar disorder, schizophrenic, hysterical.” The affinities between the two leaders far outweigh the dissimilarities, but here are a few mismatches that may have been glossed over through time: of the two, Hitler was the much sharper dresser. Hitler didn’t have a copy of The Art of the Deal on his nightstand, but a copy of Mein Kampf was (is?) at Trump’s bedside. Unlike the third Mrs. Trump, Hitler kept Eva Braun shielded from public view. (The two didn’t make it official until tying the knot 24 hours prior to their suicides.) That way, all German women became Hitler’s brides, slaves to the State. Both fascist dictators lack empathy, education, and friendship, and while Trump famously spent a night in a bunker, he did not share in Hitler’s continuous readiness for suicide.

Antisemitism is presented as a conspiracy theory that has no basis in rational fact. Germans need to own their history, and none more than Holocaust deniers like David Irving. A neo-Nazi, Irving conducts tours of Hitler’s bunker. He argues it was Himmler, not Hitler, who ordered the extermination of the Jews, and that Auschwitz was not a death camp. “Jews like to inflate numbers,” says he. And Mark Zuckerberg defends the presence of Holocaust deniers on Facebook with, “It’s wrong to impugn intent.”

Hollywood’s love affair with Hitler is paid due diligence, although the filmmakers are quick to point out that Tinsel Town’s portrayal has nothing on the cinematic love letter he composed to himself. If you’ve never seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, you’ll no doubt be taken by the similarity between the torch-wielding stormtroopers and Trump’s horde of goons descending on Charlottesville. (The sight of mothers holding their babies in the air to get a glimpse of Hitler’s plane descending from the heavens like an angel of God is burned in my brain.) And with all of the Hitler films I’ve logged, it never occured to me that Hitler is never shown dying on film. The camera pans away, or a door closes, followed by a gunshot; but we never see the bullet hit the brain. And kudos to the documentarians for intercutting footage from the Nuremberg Rally with the final throne room sequence in Star Wars. Lucas steals only from the best! On a personal note, one of the side advantages to guilt-ridden Harvey Weinstein’s incarceration is the absence of Miramax’s yearly reminder that the Holocaust was a bad thing.

Hilarity has a habit of striking in the most unexpected places. Take Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s former headquarters, where a brief musical interlude brought down the house. The tune first came to me in the 1972 film adaptation of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” Never has anyone performed it with such queasy gusto as Official State Tour Guide, Jadwiga Korowaj. Feel free to join in on the following ditty sung to the tune of the “Col. Bogey March.”

  • Hitler - he only had one ball
  • Göring - had two but very small
  • Himmler - had something similar
  • And Dr. Goebbels had no balls at all

Our tour ends in Sobibor, Poland, which for a year-and-a-half served as a Nazi German extermination camp. Hitler turned it into a forest in 1943. Today it’s a wooded glade where even birds won’t perch. Everything that remained was erased. Why Jews? Jews were different, and based on this difference, had to be eradicated. A nation acquiesced; no one stood up to Hitler. It was as easy as that. Unlike today’s politicians who fear losing their jobs over Trump’s disapproval, Hitler’s henchmen feared for their very lives. The past is horrifying, but looking forward, the rewriting of history is such that kids are playing Neo Nazi games on YouTube and referring to Hitler’s crimes against humanity as “the myth of the 6 million.” As our unerring narrator points out, in the case of Trump, “It took a catastrophe to see the obvious.” Were it not for Covid, who knows what Joe Biden’s chances would have been? Early on, we are asked, “Is it possible to make a film like this without contributing to the expansion of the Nazi thematic universe?” One runs that risk any time his name appears in the title. The only thing we have to fear is not fear itself, but the normalizing of Hitler that thrives on social media. The millions of average folk who voted for a man who inquired about the possibility of injecting household disinfectants as a cure for the pandemic aren’t gonna lap this up like moonshine-laced Kool Aid. As historian and scholar of the Holocaust Yehuda Bauer so wisely put it, “The problem isn’t that the Nazis were inhuman, but that they were human.” ★★★★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

Swan Song — Flash reaction: Udo Kier. Preparing a gall-bladder kabob in Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein? How about Johnny Mnemonic’s seedy handler? There’s the criminally connected Friedrich in Dragged Across Concrete. This week adds real-life queer icon Pat Pitsenbarger, the man who put the Pride in the Pride of Sandusky, wasting away in a nursing home. Of the 270 (!) films to his credit, Kier’s latest drops somewhere in the top 5. Like the contract killer pulled out of retirement for one last hit — he was once the most sought after coiffeur in town — Mr. Pat was requested by one of his late clients (“a demanding Republican monster”) to prepare her hair and makeup for the open-casket sendoff. Her lawyer offers $25,000 to do the job. Why the overcompensation? Rita (Linda Evans) wanted to go to her grave with bygones gone. His advice to the lawyer? “Bury her with bad hair.” That soon changes. The minute he gets around people after a flight from his assisted living facility, he reverts to his old flamboyant self. When referred to by his old nickname, “The Liberace of Sandusky” he blushingly replies, “Was I that butch?” A touchingly poignant scene with a one-time client puts Pat in touch with the character-defining getup: a hospital-wall green pantsuit topped by a purple fedora. In the past, Udo Kier dined on heart. This time, he’ll break yours with what could be the performance of his career. Writer-director Todd Stephens (Another Gay Movie) pulls off what could be the surprise hit of the summer. Landmark Hillcrest. 2020. — S.M. ★★★

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The Meaning of Hitler: There's a reason they call it Über.
The Meaning of Hitler: There's a reason they call it Über.

There should never be another fictionalized account of the Holocaust put to film. The temptation to sentimentalize the atrocities too often proves impossible to resist. (As Prof. Deborah Lipstadt points out, “The minute you’re trying to give a rational explanation for an irrational sentiment, you’re going to be lost.”) The same can be said of the myriad of documentary releases that withstand the lure of emotionalism, but stop short of shedding new light on the subject. And yet: just when I vow to swear off films about Hitler and the Holocaust, out comes another film about the subject that’s worth watching. Not only is The Meaning of Hitler deserving of your attention, it joins Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as one of the most fascinatingly original takes on the subject of what made Hitler Hitler, and why a nation paid any mind to a radical loser.

For years, I was the first to come to Trump’s defense whenever the Hitler comparison arose. I felt the same way two decades ago when Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin frivolously likened W to H: it was too easy. Hitler snuffed out 20 million lives; all Trump ever killed was a 20 oz. butt steak. That all began to change with his “good people on both sides” assessment of Charlottesville. And as I see it, January 6 forever joined Dolf ‘n Don at the hip. It doesn’t take filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (Gunnar’s Palace) but 125 seconds to mention Trump by name, and still I found myself asking, “Why so long?”

Too often, when people speak of Hitler’s genocide, the body count stops at 6 millon, the number of Jews sent to their deaths. Jews were no doubt #1 on Hitler’s hate parade, but it should come as no surprise that Der Fuhrer was an equal opportunity despiser. There is no exact accounting for the number of lives lost. According to various sources, between 1933-1945, seven out of every one hundred people living in occupied Europe died at the hands of the Nazis. Democide: Death by Government, the University of Hawaii’s exhaustive account of state-sanctioned slaughter, notes that in addition to Jews, Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 10 million Slavs, 300,000 Gypsies, 220,000 homosexuals, and millions more French, Dutch, Serbs, Slovenes, Czechs, etc. And don’t forget the 173,500 “mercy killings” of physically and mentally disabled Germans unfit to fight for the glory of the Third Reich. Next time Hitler comes up in conversation, please don’t stop at 6 million, not when the actual number more than triples that.

Sponsored
Sponsored

We begin in a railway gift shop, in search of some light reading on which to base our 92-minute intercontinental journey. Looks like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is on backorder, but there is a copy of Sebastian Haffner’s eponymous deep dig into the seven faces of the man whom Martin Amis labels the “historical figure who not one historian claims to understand.” Amis goes on to pinpoint what he calls a “phoentical cleanliness” in both Hitler and Trump’s deliveries and the open acknowledgement that there is no downside to lying. Conditions were such that it made it possible for Hitler and Trump to represent large numbers of people, and the two quickly replaced the government with chaos. How does one solve a problem like Hitler? Ask Haffner, and he’ll tell you, “For the world to be done with Hitler, it had to kill not just the man, but the legend as well.”

It’s rare for the experience of listening to historians and philosophers converse on camera to be this compelling. Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Theiss-Abendroth sums up his prognosis with, “In the course of history, Hitler has been assigned almost any psychiatric diagnosis that’s available: Oedipus complex, megalomania, bipolar disorder, schizophrenic, hysterical.” The affinities between the two leaders far outweigh the dissimilarities, but here are a few mismatches that may have been glossed over through time: of the two, Hitler was the much sharper dresser. Hitler didn’t have a copy of The Art of the Deal on his nightstand, but a copy of Mein Kampf was (is?) at Trump’s bedside. Unlike the third Mrs. Trump, Hitler kept Eva Braun shielded from public view. (The two didn’t make it official until tying the knot 24 hours prior to their suicides.) That way, all German women became Hitler’s brides, slaves to the State. Both fascist dictators lack empathy, education, and friendship, and while Trump famously spent a night in a bunker, he did not share in Hitler’s continuous readiness for suicide.

Antisemitism is presented as a conspiracy theory that has no basis in rational fact. Germans need to own their history, and none more than Holocaust deniers like David Irving. A neo-Nazi, Irving conducts tours of Hitler’s bunker. He argues it was Himmler, not Hitler, who ordered the extermination of the Jews, and that Auschwitz was not a death camp. “Jews like to inflate numbers,” says he. And Mark Zuckerberg defends the presence of Holocaust deniers on Facebook with, “It’s wrong to impugn intent.”

Hollywood’s love affair with Hitler is paid due diligence, although the filmmakers are quick to point out that Tinsel Town’s portrayal has nothing on the cinematic love letter he composed to himself. If you’ve never seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, you’ll no doubt be taken by the similarity between the torch-wielding stormtroopers and Trump’s horde of goons descending on Charlottesville. (The sight of mothers holding their babies in the air to get a glimpse of Hitler’s plane descending from the heavens like an angel of God is burned in my brain.) And with all of the Hitler films I’ve logged, it never occured to me that Hitler is never shown dying on film. The camera pans away, or a door closes, followed by a gunshot; but we never see the bullet hit the brain. And kudos to the documentarians for intercutting footage from the Nuremberg Rally with the final throne room sequence in Star Wars. Lucas steals only from the best! On a personal note, one of the side advantages to guilt-ridden Harvey Weinstein’s incarceration is the absence of Miramax’s yearly reminder that the Holocaust was a bad thing.

Hilarity has a habit of striking in the most unexpected places. Take Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s former headquarters, where a brief musical interlude brought down the house. The tune first came to me in the 1972 film adaptation of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” Never has anyone performed it with such queasy gusto as Official State Tour Guide, Jadwiga Korowaj. Feel free to join in on the following ditty sung to the tune of the “Col. Bogey March.”

  • Hitler - he only had one ball
  • Göring - had two but very small
  • Himmler - had something similar
  • And Dr. Goebbels had no balls at all

Our tour ends in Sobibor, Poland, which for a year-and-a-half served as a Nazi German extermination camp. Hitler turned it into a forest in 1943. Today it’s a wooded glade where even birds won’t perch. Everything that remained was erased. Why Jews? Jews were different, and based on this difference, had to be eradicated. A nation acquiesced; no one stood up to Hitler. It was as easy as that. Unlike today’s politicians who fear losing their jobs over Trump’s disapproval, Hitler’s henchmen feared for their very lives. The past is horrifying, but looking forward, the rewriting of history is such that kids are playing Neo Nazi games on YouTube and referring to Hitler’s crimes against humanity as “the myth of the 6 million.” As our unerring narrator points out, in the case of Trump, “It took a catastrophe to see the obvious.” Were it not for Covid, who knows what Joe Biden’s chances would have been? Early on, we are asked, “Is it possible to make a film like this without contributing to the expansion of the Nazi thematic universe?” One runs that risk any time his name appears in the title. The only thing we have to fear is not fear itself, but the normalizing of Hitler that thrives on social media. The millions of average folk who voted for a man who inquired about the possibility of injecting household disinfectants as a cure for the pandemic aren’t gonna lap this up like moonshine-laced Kool Aid. As historian and scholar of the Holocaust Yehuda Bauer so wisely put it, “The problem isn’t that the Nazis were inhuman, but that they were human.” ★★★★★

Video on Demand and New Release Roundup

Swan Song — Flash reaction: Udo Kier. Preparing a gall-bladder kabob in Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein? How about Johnny Mnemonic’s seedy handler? There’s the criminally connected Friedrich in Dragged Across Concrete. This week adds real-life queer icon Pat Pitsenbarger, the man who put the Pride in the Pride of Sandusky, wasting away in a nursing home. Of the 270 (!) films to his credit, Kier’s latest drops somewhere in the top 5. Like the contract killer pulled out of retirement for one last hit — he was once the most sought after coiffeur in town — Mr. Pat was requested by one of his late clients (“a demanding Republican monster”) to prepare her hair and makeup for the open-casket sendoff. Her lawyer offers $25,000 to do the job. Why the overcompensation? Rita (Linda Evans) wanted to go to her grave with bygones gone. His advice to the lawyer? “Bury her with bad hair.” That soon changes. The minute he gets around people after a flight from his assisted living facility, he reverts to his old flamboyant self. When referred to by his old nickname, “The Liberace of Sandusky” he blushingly replies, “Was I that butch?” A touchingly poignant scene with a one-time client puts Pat in touch with the character-defining getup: a hospital-wall green pantsuit topped by a purple fedora. In the past, Udo Kier dined on heart. This time, he’ll break yours with what could be the performance of his career. Writer-director Todd Stephens (Another Gay Movie) pulls off what could be the surprise hit of the summer. Landmark Hillcrest. 2020. — S.M. ★★★

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2

You make no mention of "The White Rose" in terms of German civilian teenagers who defied the Nazi State and paid with their lives.. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the only film that ever managed to get near any verisimilitude of Holocaust experience, in my opinion, was Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker" (1965) with a towering performance by Rod Stieger. For German filmmakers, Syberberg's "Our Hitler", For fiction, Jonathan Litell's "The Kindly Ones". For theater, Robert Shaw's "The Man In The Glass Booth". In addition: Pasolini's "Salo", Klimov's "Come And See", Haneke's "The White Ribbon", Schlondoff's "The Tin Drum", Geissendorfer's "The Magic Mountain" from the Thomas Mann novel.

Aug. 28, 2021

Oh, I forgot. "The Tenth Level" with William Shatner, about the Stanley Milgram Experiment.

Aug. 29, 2021

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