Tony Cross watched The Meaning of Hitler at the UK Jewish Film Festival...
Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, this is a documentary about Hitler. It’s a film about Hitler, but it is also a film about now and about how the erosion of history and the concept of truth allows denial and lies.
I think it is the perfect documentary for 2021.
The title is taken from the book The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Haffner. The historian Saul Friedlander, who features in this video a lot, says to the filmmakers early on that they won’t find a ‘meaning’. No one can. Only Haffner thought he could.
Indeed, one of the questions the filmmakers ask themselves is "Are we just contributing another film to the “Nazi Cinematic Universe” that helps perpetuate the myth of Hitler?" I think they do a good job of avoiding that. They also use Shaffner’s book to title the separate sections of the film.
It isn’t just talking heads, although there are a lot. There are clips from films and television too. They make a point which I’ve never really considered before. Why is it that, when filmmakers get to Hitler’s death, they always cut away? Why do they give Hitler death on his own terms? The victims of Hitler tend not to get that respect.
As well as actual historians we also – unfortunately – hear from David Irving. David Irving, for those of you who don’t know, is the polite face of Holocaust denial. He once had a small reputation as a historian but his desire to avoid finding Hitler complicit in the Holocaust made him a denier. He was involved in a famous libel trial v Deborah Lipstadt, who is also in this film and makes more sense than Irving does at any point. He lost that libel trial and Justice Grey’s judgement, which was published by Penguin, is worth reading. It helps stamp Irving’s reputation into the ground. I found myself cringing whenever he appeared, but he did a fine job of showing himself for what he really is.
The film also points out the irrationality of anti-Semitism, which is why it is hard to stamp out, and how the internet has helped people to push nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism out to millions of people. There’s a bit of an interview with Mark Zuckerberg, from NPR I think, that makes me realise how awful he and his company are where he effectively gives a licence for Holocaust denial on his platforms. It’s moral cowardice of the highest order.
Early in the film someone – and sorry I can’t remember who – describes Hitler as a “radical loser” who convinced people that they were the victims and that they could do something about that by attacking their enemies. He gave people an excuse to do what they had always wanted to do. As with Final Account, which I watched yesterday [read Tony's review here - Ed], it isn’t the monsters we have to worry about it is the ordinary people who follow the monsters and those who just stand by.
The end of the film is given to Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli historian whose family left Czechoslovakia in 1939 and moved to the then British mandate in Palestine. He says that – and I’m paraphrasing – humanity is in a constant battle between two sides of its nature. The one that will kill fellow humans and the one that will support them. Hitler gave people the chance to be killers. We must stop that happening again and, as I write this, Priti Patel is making speeches about immigrants and the lawyers that try to protect them that are shameful. If the films I have watched over the last week have taught me anything, it is that fascism only works if we let it. It only works if we stand aside. It only works if we don’t do our best to stop it at the earliest opportunity. Priti Patel’s speeches are populist nonsense, but if we don’t stand up for everyone, even people who don’t care about us, we stand up for no one.
I encourage you to watch this film if you can. I think it is important and I found it helped me find a certain clarity on issues I’ve been thinking about a lot.
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The UK Jewish Film Festival 2021 takes place from Thursday 4th November – Thursday 18th November 2021, in cinemas and online. Find out more and how to watch The Meaning of Hitler here.
Image - UK Jewish Film Festival