Time has a tendency to flatten history’s darkest chapters, reducing panic and persecution to footnotes and caricature. So it goes with Adolf Hitler, whose outsized image as a cartoon villain often obscures the horrifying endurance of Nazi ideology today. “The Meaning of Hitler” sets the record straight. A bracing blend of historical inquiry and cinematic soul-searching, directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s eerie and insightful essay film burrows into the nexus of Hitler’s mythology in a remarkable attempt to determine whether it makes more sense to understand its resilience or tune it out. As it meanders through a parade of talking heads, pensive narration, fragments of biography, and genocidal sightseeing, the movie assembles a trenchant argument against shrugging aside the specter of Nazism, and makes it clear that the fascism of the past can happen just as easily today.
This is not uncharted terrain. “The Meaning of Hitler” takes its title from Sebastian Haffner’s 1978 German bestseller, and calls out the book’s own legacy in a snazzy opening montage. Haffner grew up in the midst of Hitler’s rise, and witnessed attempts to sanitize his evil in later decades, as lunatics like British Holocaust denier David Irving gained currency. The ensuing tome, which the filmmakers reference in a dispassionate voiceover as “the dystopian book of the week,” combines a biographical investigation into Hitler’s lore with a practical explanation of his allure. The result provides an unassailable breakdown of how rational people can be complicit in irredeemable sins. It hurts to admit that Hitler wasn’t a psychopath, but that path leads to more profound revelations about how terrible people come to power.
Epperlein and Tucker (who adopted a similar style for “Karl Marx City”) use the book’s sobering tone as an excuse to revisit the machinations of Hitler’s regime, from the grandiose editing strategies of “The Triumph of the Will” (of which they find reverberations, to chilling effect, in everything from “Star Wars” to “The Lion King”) to his talent at the microphone. The talking heads range from writers like Martin Amis (who sees the Trump-Hitler connection mainly in terms of lying and an obsession with cleanliness) to Israeli historian Saul Friedlander, who explains that “we’re drawn to the personality of Hitler.” Cue the montage of Hitlerean parodies: Whether it’s Mel Brooks or Sarah Silverman, the implied question looms large: Is this subversive re-appropriating an accidental means of bolstering his posthumous effect?
Just when “The Meaning of Hitler” seems as if it’s going full Chris Marker, the directors back away from the purely inquisitive approach, acknowledging the trappings of their material in a reasonable query: “Is it possible to make a film like this without contributing to the Nazi cinematic universe?” The answer falls into a grey area, and it’s not always a satisfying place to linger, but there’s a fundamental intrigue to watching them search for the right tone. Set to a jittery score by Alex Kliment and edited with the jaunty cues of a global espionage thriller, “The Meaning of Hitler” feels both dangerous and essential even when it amounts to more questions than answers.
Aiming for a bigger picture, Epperlein and Tucker eventually embark on visits to a wide range of historical sites. The contemporary perspective combines the raw, meditative power of “Shoah” with the quasi-confrontational approach of Errol Morris’ “Mr. Death.” Though a surreal visit to Hitler’s bunker (now a parking lot) yields few significant insights, the filmmakers find the ultimate provocative subject in no less than Irving himself, a deranged octogenarian who leads nefarious tours to old concentration camps and other sites of Nazi influence. Irving’s insane anti-semitic ramblings (some of which seem to have been caught on a hot mic) are terrifying, though “The Meaning of Hitler” falls short of putting them in some wider context aside from incontrovertible proof that people still think Hitler was above reproach.
But of course, we already knew that. The movie’s ultimate thesis — that Nazis were normal people who did awful things — doesn’t exactly unearth new insights into the nature of the Third Reich, but it lingers on the humanity of Hitler just enough to bolster its disturbing raison d’être. Whether that comes from closeups of the shoddy watercolors from his failed first career as a street artist (for which an art historian offers a blunt assessment) or roaming the mountainous regions where he forged his ethereal man-of-the-Aryan-people brand, “The Meaning of Hitler” excels at assembling an exploratory nonfiction biopic.
The movie never fully succeeds at fusing these passages with the more immediate contemporary details, from the Charlottesville riots to Facebook disinformation, which come and go in fragmentary observations amid an elusive tapestry that keeps shifting around. But “The Meaning of Hitler” doesn’t have to make sense of this decade’s chaos to clarify just how much it remains vulnerable to the same complaisant attitudes exploited by the German leader decades ago. The movie isn’t just another cautionary tale; it’s a jagged intellectual wakeup call that cuts deep, and America can’t hear it enough.
“The Meaning of Hitler” is available to stream as a part of DOC NYC through November 19. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.