‘The Meaning of Hitler’ Review: Understanding Fascism

The docu-essay “The Meaning of Hitler” proceeds with caution. The film, inspired by the historian and journalist Sebastian Haffner’s 1978 book of the same title, seeks to understand the combination of personal pathology, political shrewdness and mass complicity that allowed Hitler to create the Nazi regime. It also finds disturbing 21st-century echoes.

But the filmmakers, the wife-husband directorial team of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (“Gunner Palace”), are wary of contributing to any mystique that surrounds Hitler, not least because they find little in Hitler’s background that makes him unique. Early on, a narrator expresses concern about the project: “Is it possible to make a film like this without contributing to the expansion of the Nazi cinematic universe?”

Although the film features Holocaust historians like Saul Friedländer, Yehuda Bauer and Deborah Lipstadt and the authors Martin Amis and Francine Prose, it approaches Hitler from a variety of disciplines. The psychiatrist Peter Theiss-Abendroth says that Hitler has been assigned almost any diagnosis available, but he suggests that such speculation invariably creates excuses for culpability. Bauer notes that Hitler’s psychological problems were no different from those of millions of others. The movie delves into technology to explain how advances in microphones enabled Hitler’s theatrical style of oration. An archaeologist discusses the excavation of the Sobibor death camp.

So is “The Meaning of Hitler” really playing with fire? It is when it trails the Holocaust denier David Irving on a visit to Treblinka. Irving makes offhand anti-Semitic remarks so flagrantly offensive it’s difficult to see what’s edifying about including him.

But that misstep aside, “The Meaning of Hitler” takes a multifaceted, often counterintuitive approach to examining the underpinnings of fascism.

The Meaning of Hitler
Not rated. In English and German with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Google Play, Apple TV and other streaming services.

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