IFC Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker
Writer: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker, based on the novel “The Meaning of Hitler” by Sebastian Haffner
Cast: Martin Amis, Yehuda Bauer, Richard Evans, Saul Friedländer, David Irving, Serge Klarsfeld, Deborah Lipstadt, Francine Prose, Klaus Theweleit, Matilda Tucker
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/12/21
Opens: August 13, 2021

During my years teaching high school World History, I would go along with the syllabus and ask this question every term. “Given that ancient Athens was a world of democratic thought and high culture and Sparta was an authoritarian city-state whose people put more importance on the military than on cultural pursuits, where would you have preferred to live?” And every term I got the same answer: Athens, of course. But every so often, a kid would take the risk of alienating himself from his fellows by having a different opinion, summing up with “Sparta: because you did not have to think.” Anyway, most students continued to give answers that they thought the teacher would expect. Do people really want not to think? Will they allow their governments to make all decisions, however questionable, provided, perhaps, that the leaders would give something in return like a more expansive economy with robust employment?

Were the German voters aware that they were choosing the author of a turgid, hate-filled book “Mein Kampf,” or were they, like the Spartans, nicht denken? Were Americans not disgusted by Trump’s racist rant about Obama’s alleged non-citizenship? Perhaps in both cases, the uneducated, the resentful, the ne’er-do-wells didn’t care about deep thought but let their emotions carry them before, inside the voting booth, and now, beyond.

This appears to be the consensus of the historians and other intellectuals that make their (usually) heavily-accented views on a new documentary about the Nazis. “The Meaning of Hitler” devotes too little time showing comparisons between the rise of Hitler beginning in 1933 and the growth of authoritarianism in America, most recently enjoying a recent rise not only here but also strongly in Brazil, Poland, and Hungary. On the contrary: the doc devotes too much time to rehashing what we already know about Hitler: the failed artists (we see shots of the Vienna School of Fine Arts to which he was rejected twice, the bunker in Berlin where Hitler would conduct business with high-level officials; his birthplace in Braunau am inn, Austria; the effect of Hitler’s oratorical skill that allowed him to rise from leadership of a ragtag Nazi Party to the leadership of a Germany whose enthusiasm for Nazism took a sharp rise by 1938; a quick look at Leni Riefenstahl’s kitschy propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”)

The doc is by husband-wife team Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, whose “11/8/16” deals with the unexpected victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Eschewing narration and the question-and-answer format, they let the heads do the talking. Some of the interviewees could try the patience of some viewers given that English is not their first language and their delivery painfully slow. Without much competition, then, the odious David Irving, who lost a suit he brought against Deborah Lipstadt who, he alleged, libeled him, becomes the character whom a normal audience member might like to jump through the screen and strangle the man. The Holocaust denier has no problem spouting anti-Semitic viewpoints, with such comments as “The Jews have an interest in exaggerating numbers (such as the view that six million Jews died during the Holocaust); “The Jews do not work, they write receipts.” His most absurd statement is that Hitler did not directly order the killing of a single Jew, offering a thousand dollars to anyone who can show an authentic, written command by the German dictator. (Never mind that Hitler refused to put a pen to paper about his plan to make Europe “Judenfrei, but instead allowed his top advisers to order the extermination policy at the Wannsee Conference.)

You may observe a political figure anywhere in the world wanting to overturn an election or desiring to continue in office past his term (we speak, of course, about the unfortunate former president of Haiti, Jovenel Moise) or stating that the press is the enemy of the people. Do some thinking. Be Athenian. While really showing us nothing new, Tucker and Eppelstein are teaching us a lesson, one which we all might like to take to heart, but given the conditions leading to spurts of nationalism and given the volatile emotional makeups of homo sapiens, is it any wonder that an authoritarian regime could arise even in America?

92 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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