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The ‘Nazi Cinematic Universe’ Hasn’t Taught Us Anything About Hitler

The documentary ‘The Meaning of Hitler’ explores the Nazi’s cultural ubiquity and modern-day relevance. But the filmmakers explain why it’s a mistake to compare Trump to him.

For someone who’s been dead more than 75 years, Adolf Hitler still exerts an incredible hold on our society. He remains a reliable movie villain, he’s a convenient comparison to drop when you’re trying to insult someone, and after all this time, trying to rehabilitate the Hitler mustache is ill-advised. Historians continue to write exhaustive biographies of the man, and you can still win Oscars by daring to portray him in a satire. He’s everywhere, especially in our discourse as we constantly seek out confirmation of growing fascism at home and abroad. He hovers over the cultural landscape like a dark cloud.

But what does Hitler mean in the year 2021? Married filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker wanted to find out, using as their guide a 1978 book entitled The Meaning of Hitler, which dissects the Nazi leader’s impact, failures and relative successes. In a somewhat similar vein, Epperlein and Tucker (who previously made the documentary Karl Marx City) have constructed an essay film that seeks to understand our endless fascination with the Führer, speaking to psychiatrists, authors (including Martin Amis), historians and, in the case of infamous Holocaust denier David Irving, a loathsome anti-Semite in order to gain a better sense of Hitler’s grip on our collective consciousness. Along the way, the documentarians also travel to crucial places in Hitler’s legacy, including his hometown (which barely acknowledges his existence) and the sobering Sobibor death camp. 

Anyone turning to their film, also called The Meaning of Hitler (and out Friday), looking for a conventional biography or history lesson will be disappointed. Instead, Epperlein and Tucker present Hitler almost like a natural phenomenon — a strange aberration that’s ubiquitous but also somehow still unknowable. Not only do they analyze the man, they dissect his public image — particularly how he’s been portrayed in films over the years. Hitler has now been dead longer than he was alive, but his echoes are felt everywhere. Especially during Trump’s unlikely road to the White House, the fear of a rising alt-right movement spurred endless debates about whether what was happening in America was similar to Germany a century ago. But such concerns weren’t solely felt in the U.S.: With the growing clamor for nationalism around the world, it seemed like new Hitlers were sprouting up everywhere. The film tries to put that anxiety in a historical context while also recognizing the very clear and present dangers that exist today.

I spoke with Epperlein and Tucker on the phone this week about The Meaning of Hitler, and it seemed oddly appropriate that, for part of our conversation, an emergency-vehicle siren was wailing in the distance. (It also seemed apt that none of us mentioned it: We’ve all gotten used to compartmentalizing emergencies these last few years.) Epperlein was born in Germany, while Tucker hails from the States, and although the interview focused largely on what’s going on in America, a recent trip to Berlin clearly informed their thoughts on the lingering worries about a neo-Nazi groundswell in our society. Like their wide-ranging, inquisitive documentary, our talk bounced around from topic to topic, touching on anti-Semitism, anti-vaxxers, even what they refer to as the Nazi Cinematic Universe. But if you’re someone who wants to compare Trump to Hitler, Epperlein and Tucker are here to say why that’s shortsighted. 

Watching The Meaning of Hitler, I thought about how, in the public consciousness, Hitler is more of a symbol or an idea than a person. It seems like the film is trying to return him to human-size.

Tucker: I think through all the literature and all the films, over 75 years now, [he really becomes] not just mythology but you give him this mystical power. He becomes un-human — [he’s] this basket where you put all of your fears. And so, when you see these comparisons — “Trump is Hitler” or “Hillary Clinton is Hitler” — it really becomes this symbol that’s devoid of meaning. 

It’s interesting that just now, and in the film’s press notes, you stress the fact that Trump isn’t Hitler, which is a comparison a lot of people made during Trump’s presidency to warn Americans about the possible rise of fascism in this country. So why do you resist that comparison? 

Tucker: When we’re talking about Hitler, we have to realize that this [was] this murderous individual. Trump — I mean, he’s all sorts of things — but he hasn’t proven himself to be a murderous individual. 

Epperlein: To compare today’s autocrats to Hitler kind of relieves us of a responsibility to see our… what’s the word?

Tucker: Our own complicity. We do live in a democracy, so every time you [make this comparison], then you’re saying that this is all completely failed. We took this point of view from talking to historians — especially ones that are old enough to have lived through [Hitler], or even be survivors — that they’re actually more confident about democracy than we could ever be as younger people. That’s fascinating.

That perspective surprises me: What prompts their optimism? 

Tucker: I’m American, and we just returned to New York from Berlin. This American experiment, you really want this to work. So much has come to the surface in the last few years [because of Trump], but at the same time, so much good has come out. I’ll bet on democracy, you know? I think to [make] those sort of lazy “It’s Hitler” [comparisons], that’s throwing in the towel, and that’s not the point we’re at. But I think the thing that came through over and over and over again as we were making the film is that — not just with Trump, but with other [modern] leaders — they have the power to mobilize people and unleash this energy in people, like Hitler [did]. And that’s both interesting and terrifying because we don’t even know what that could look like.

Epperlein: Also, history doesn’t only have one direction. Remember 1989? The [Berlin] Wall came down, and “the end of history” was declared. Well, here we are 30 years later, and anything but the end of history is happening. So what we’ve learned from these historians [is] one force will be dominating one day, and then the other force needs to fight. So it’s a constant circle, but since we do live in this democracy, we have to be actively engaged and see that we have a responsibility.

The documentary touches on two aspects of Hitler’s biography that almost everyone has heard: He was an unsuccessful painter, and he supposedly only had one testicle. These factoids seem to exist in the popular culture to cut Hitler down to size — to mock his artistic aspirations and his manhood.

Tucker: There’s a whole laundry list of these little details from his biography that people have used over the years. I’m not entirely 100 percent sure of this, but I think the story about him having one ball is actually something that was seeded by the OSS during the war. There were these medical reports that were released — they were always looking for “What is the flaw?” Whether it’s physical, psychological or sexual, what’s the thing that explains him? Rather than the obvious, [which is] looking at human nature and saying, “Well, that exists within all of us.” We want to explain this great evil with something that’s digestible.

You mention in the film that psychiatrists have diagnosed Hitler with everything: He was schizophrenic, he was this, he was that. We cling to those kinds of answers because we can’t understand any other reason why someone could be that way. 

Tucker: It’s funny, when you go back to Trump during the first election, there were all of these things with the American Psychiatric Association. There’s a rule that goes back to — I forget which election, the late 1960s or early 1970s — where they invoked this rule that they couldn’t diagnose people running for office. [They said it] was unethical. But people were trying to come up with “What explains Trump and his personality?” What explains Trump is, like… America. [Laughs] Trump is like the worst version of ourselves, and that’s all we need to know. So it’s funny trying to come up with “the explanation” — and, of course, those explanations in the case of Trump fueled this whole industry of punditry.

The documentary refers to the Nazi Cinematic Universe, which is a clever term for all the films about Hitler over the years. You pointed out something that had never occurred to me: In these movies, we rarely see Hitler commit suicide in that bunker. So many cut away from that moment, essentially giving him his dignity, whereas they always linger on the atrocities that happen to the Jews.

Tucker: Go to Inglourious Basterds, that’s probably the closest we’ve seen to Hitler getting his due violent end. I think it was Wim Wenders, he took incredible exception when Downfall premiered. He wrote this lengthy essay just full of rage precisely for that reason: “Why as a filmmaker would you spare the audience that [scene]?” Why are we creating this circle of protection around this suicide and [add] more mysticism about it?

Epperlein: And actually following his last wishes to eternity — he didn’t want [his corpse] displayed, so we go along with that? Why are we doing that? That makes no sense.

Tucker: Another funny thing is that looking at all these Russian and East German films about Hitler, they show him in a much more severe light than the Western films that came out, which is really quite fascinating. He’s seen as quite pathetic.

Epperlein: Of course, all of those films are true propaganda. The Russians started making films about the end of Hitler already in ‘46, right after the war. They started because they wanted to tell their version of history as well. 

I think it’s something about American films that we need to have strong, compelling bad guys — especially in the case of Hitler so that our victory in World War II can seem that much more impressive.

Tucker: There’s certainly lots there. [With American films] Nazis and Hitler [are the bad guys] and then they were replaced immediately by Communists — those were, like, the go-to bad guys. And, of course, we’ve seen it evolve over time, and it’s become far more cartoon-like in the depiction. It always amazes me that people love that film Downfall so much when, in my eyes, it’s a very flawed portrayal.

What did you find lacking?

Tucker: It has these revisionist elements in it: “Hitler as you’ve never seen him before”; “You’re seeing the human side of Hitler.” But at the same time, you’ve probably seen there’s eight billion YouTube clips of the raging Hitler scene at the map table from Downfall. It’s considered to be this great performance — it’s really quite odd how cinema has treated him.

At the same time, we have films like The Producers that satirize Hitler. The argument for a movie like that, or Jojo Rabbit, is to strip Hitler’s power away by making him out to be a fool. 

Tucker: When you talk about Mel Brooks, you’re talking about his handling of Hitler [only] 20 years after the war, which is sort of incredible — we’re 20 years past 9/11 [now], we forget about these time distances. And I think that as an American Jew, that ownership of taking control of the story is so important. But there was a staging of The Producers in Berlin [in 2009] — it’s really funny [seeing] the press clips from that, because imagine watching The Producers in German in Berlin. 

Epperlein: So many satirize history that way. It’s super-important to do so, but it requires that people actually have a knowledge of history. And the further we move away from the actual events… I mean, many people do have knowledge of everything that’s happened, of course. But sometimes you don’t really know if that’s the first instance of people being exposed to [stories about the Nazis].

Tucker: How does a 20-year-old interact with Jojo Rabbit if they know nothing about this? It’s just a film, but at the same time — especially the boy discovering the girl living in his house — it’s a little bit revisionist and it’s a little bit too comfortable.

You’ve talked about the fact that making The Meaning of Hitler was your way of confronting the rising darkness in the world. Now that you’ve completed the film, is there any comfort? 

Epperlein: Documentary filmmaking as some sort of self-therapy would be amazing! [Laughs]

So it doesn’t help, huh?

Tucker: You listen to the historians, and they feel very optimistic about everything. On the other hand, we were filming in Europe and we were seeing these mass movements that make the movements here look relatively timid. In Germany, we were filming crowds of like 30,000 people at night, week after week after week. That was 2015. 

We’ve seen the neo-Nazi in America as as extreme, but I think what’s more scary now — and I think that’s where we get into Trumpism — is this cult of the leader. Also, there’s this complete disintegration of truth and the fact that we have people who have invested all of themselves (A) into this cult and (B) into conspiracies. And that’s just dumb luck for Trump — I don’t even know how much of that has to do with him. It’s the time we live in — and it’s not just happening here, it’s happening everywhere on the planet. [Laughs] Maybe I need much, much more therapy.

The film talks about this evocative phrase, “the radical loser,” that’s used to describe Hitler, who was an unremarkable man before his rise to power. But like Trump, he seemed able to connect with people who maybe themselves felt abandoned or marginalized. 

Epperlein: Hitler was able to use this perceived victimhood on a large percentage of people in Germany after World War I — Trump and many of these other autocrats around the world are able to do something similar. There is a relatively large portion of, let’s say, white American males — just give it a label — who perceive themselves as victims of what’s happening around them. Trump is able to tap into that and unleash that anger and allow them to think all these thoughts. That’s a very powerful thing what he’s able to do.

Tucker: It’s also identifying, “What is the object of their hate?” Often, there’s the idea of this shadowy establishment or these elite, and there’s conspiracies revolving around that. And now history has been completely weaponized, which is something that’s also talked about in the film. Look at Critical Race Theory: Six months ago, that was something that only professors at Bard talked about. It wasn’t a mainstream topic, and it’s really this invented thing, as if sixth graders are being indoctrinated into this sinister ideology. So we’re seeing the frontlines of this — it’s a war over this victimhood.

You show us these young influencers on social media, like Brittany Venti, who are getting indoctrinated into alt-right groups. Are they susceptible to these extreme views because they’re young, because it’s the internet or because they actually harbor these views?

Tucker: One of the interesting things [about] that whole world that exists, it’s like today’s Woodstock and it’s really about transgression. For those people, the rest of us are just these normies walking around who don’t understand their memes, don’t understand their irony. So in the case of anti-Semitism, there’ve been these very dark strands, and if you look at that girl [in the film], I think you can actually see it on the screen — if you look closely at the comments that are being posted [during her online chat], it’s like the most toxic anti-Semitism that you’ve ever seen. It’s truly shocking and disgusting, but it’s all sort of like upping the ante — like, “How far can you go with this?” 

If you don’t “get it,” then you’re a normie — but then she goes to Charlottesville and, oh, they’re together in a group, and they’ve united themselves under this ridiculous, ironic banner. And then it turns violent — and I think that’s where all that radicalization happens. Suddenly, they become the victims. And that’s why that whole speech discussion has come up about people being banned by these [social media] platforms: Well, if you don’t want to be banned by a platform, then maybe be a civil person.

You include David Irving, a notorious anti-Semite, in the film. I’m curious if he tried to soft-pedal his views in front of you to win your favor? Of course, you catch him on a hot mic expressing his truly noxious opinions about Jews, so whatever flattery he might have tried evaporates right then.

Tucker: The way he operates is he’ll always say, “We’re just trying to find the truth. This is about history.” He can often drift into vagueness. And so that’s why that moment that was captured is so raw: A part of this is about reveling in this cruelty and celebrating that. It left both of us with chills.

That attitude — “we’re just trying to find the truth” — is something you hear a ton from anti-vaxxers, too. Is it a stretch to compare anti-Semites to anti-vaxxers?

Tucker: That’s not a stretch. We just traveled from Berlin where the weekend before last, [there were] about 5,000 anti-vaxxers supported by hardcore neo-Nazis run amok through the city fighting riot police. Some of these people, they’re everything from back-to-earth hippies to fundamentalist Christians to grandmas and grandpas — and then extremely hardcore neo-Nazis. And that’s what’s fueling them: Any [anti-COVID] mandate is like a return to fascism — “We need to reject this science because we don’t have all the facts.”

Epperlein: And this is such a slippery slope. These neo-Nazis or neo-fascists have such a high energy to take over many of these movements and instrumentalize people.

Tucker: There’s a direct line between anti-vaxxers and anti-Semitic groups. There’s total transparency nowadays — these things are all wound up together.

I wonder how much of our fascination with Hitler comes from childhood feelings about bullies? We’re scared of them, we’re magnetized by them, they leave an imprint on us.

Epperlein: I mean, I was never fascinated by the tough guys. [Laughs] But Martin Amis explains it really well: Man is fascinated by evil, and can it be any more evil than Hitler? 

Tucker: The idea of the bully, that’s a one-to-one similarity between Trump and Hitler — this idea of being the loudspeaker of the people. To be the guy standing up there saying the things that everyone wants to say, who’s not afraid to say them, just says it off the cuff — that certainly was Trump, and that certainly was Hitler. I certainly don’t respect it, but obviously there was a group of people that were like, “Yes, he’s speaking for us.” That becomes a source of admiration.

It seems like certain people will respond to something that’s usually not said out loud — it’ll resonate.

Tucker: It’s funny: We always remembered the Access Hollywood bus, right before the 2016 election, the moment Trump was caught on the hot mic. All of us sort of thought like, “Oh, that’s the end of [Trump’s run].” Well, it wasn’t the end of it because people were like, “Well, that’s just what people say. That’s what I say when I’m in the locker room. That’s what my husband says.” Clearly, there’s something that we don’t understand.

Especially with Trump, his toxic views emboldened a lot of bad people to express their own toxic views in public — they felt empowered because he was saying the same thing.

Tucker: And we definitely shouldn’t laugh at [those views]. If you go back to The New York Times, some of their first reporting about Hitler — they were like, “Well, don’t really take this seriously. This anti-Semitism is all of an act.” And that, for us, is the biggest lesson of the film: When people say things, they actually mean them.

Epperlein: When Trump said that he’s not going to accept the results of the election, you can just think, “Ha ha, that’s funny.” But you saw what happened: He didn’t accept it.

Because Biden’s in office now, I think a lot of liberals think, “Okay, that’s been taken care of now, that rise of fascism in America.” The Meaning of Hitler is you reminding people to be vigilant.

Epperlein: People should know their history in general — they should always remember they have to be vigilant. Democracy isn’t a fixed thing — it’s not a given that it always exists in a peaceful way. They actually have to work for this. 

Tucker: We’re sort of like at the end of the beginning, not at the beginning of the end. I think we’ve just gotten the first taste of exactly what’s possible. Look what the Republicans are doing. It knows no limits anymore.