Not Only a Raging, Spitting, Fanatic: Depicting the Real Hitler on Screen Is Key to Identifying the Next One

The world looks for the wrong warning signs in trying to identify new Hitlers, historians and Hitler experts warn. So how to depict the Nazi leader on screen?

a figure depicting former German dictator Adolf Hitler is displayed at the Madame Tussauds Berlin Wax Museum, in Berlin, on Thursday, July 3, 2008.
AP

ABERDEEN, Scotland – In a classroom set among the spires and Gothic towers at the University of Aberdeen, Professor Thomas Weber screens a black-and-white 1933 speech by Adolf Hitler thumping his chest and waving his hands as he roars out a flood of diatribes. This is the image many of us have of the man responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people during World War II.

But that emotional crescendo, as in most of Hitler’s speeches, would have come only in the final minutes of a speech that stretched on in calmer, exacting tones for two and even three hours, says Weber, a historian and expert on Hitler. He then plays for a group of scholars and filmmakers attending a workshop on the challenges of depicting Hitler in television and film a 1942 audio tape recorded secretly by the Finnish secret service. The voice is low and measured, there’s a polite give-and-take in the dialogue.

“This is what Hitler really sounded like when he wasn't giving speeches,” says Weber, author of the recently published "Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi." The image of the spitting, raging, fanatical Hitler that is often depicted on television or in documentary and feature films inadvertently reconstructs Nazi propaganda for new generations, Weber argues.

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"As a result,” he says, “The world arguably looks for the wrong warning signs in trying to identify new Hitlers … We are all raised on Hitler raging. But we need to realize that the next Hitler will look precisely like us and probably speak precisely like us.”

Adolf Hitler.
AP

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The Hitler whom audiences today know came of age at a time when microphones, initially, were not available. In his early years as a leader he had to learn to use his own voice to fill up large venues. “And he would skillfully build up momentum and at the end tend to have these kind of outbursts,” Weber says.

“What people don’t know was that this way of speaking was common at this time,” says Niki Stein, a German filmmaker who is working on a fictionalized television series about Hitler’s life.

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“There is this Hitler enigma, even three generations later," says Martin Davidson, a filmmaker and the former Commissioning Editor for BBC's History. This enigmatic haze, he says, is even more present these days with the rise of demagoguery, which "invites you to make these comparisons." But, he warns, "when it happens you won’t spot it --  it won’t be the man in khaki handing out Der Sturmer, it will be over ‘there’ and you won’t quite notice.”

Steve Remy, a history professor at Brooklyn College, agrees, adding that there is a risk that the on-screen depictions of Hitler contribute to the "fetishization of evil," making it harder to identify it in real-life. "For me, the main thing is don’t present him the way he wanted to be presented,” he says.

Remy stresses that there is not that big of a difference between today's far-right slogans and those heard in the late nineteenth century, with both focusing on the disappearance of the white race and the sense that whites are being replaced by Africans and Asians.

“It’s utterly familiar if you remove the florid nineteenth century language,” he says.

In Germany, where there has been the most reckoning with Hitler, fear of creating new admirers has promoted the question: is film and television putting too much focus on the Nazi leader?

Gavriel Rosenfeld, a history professor at Fairfield University, who joined the workshop remotely from Connecticut, spoke about the tension between normalization and moralism at play when depicting Hitler: “There is a temptation on the part of historians to understand historical figures and to judge. The danger is if we demonize or understand him perhaps we let him off the hook and we are in phase now where people want to understand him.”

He noted that movies have tended to focus on his early years or his final years (Downfall is one example) but not on the height of his crimes.

Putting Hitler on the screen is a delicate balance between attempting not to over-magnify the Nazi leader and the desire to reach new audiences, filmmakers say.

The 1979 mini-series “The Holocaust” is a good example, says Wieland Giebel, who created the new permanent Hitler exhibition at the Berlin Story Bunker in Berlin.

The series opened the door for viewers, particularly in Germany, to face what happened.

Giebal says, “We were tremendously shocked, in a good way, with a lot of people seeing it and saying, ‘What have we done? What did our parents do.

Speaking to a younger generation

The main question, says Roxanna Spicer, a Toronto filmmaker, and author of the forthcoming “The Traitor’s Daughter” about her Russian mother’s experiences in the war, is “how to depict Hitler in a climate where millennials have never heard of Auschwitz … who have no connection to this time in history.”

For Spicer, the question is how to tell an over-told story using a language "millennials or Generation Z have an ability to absorb."

Rosenfeld says that considering viewers today, particularly young viewers are seeking out bingeable series, the time is ripe for a Hitler centered story or documentary.

He noted the success of “Babylon Berlin” on Netflix and the “Man in High Castle” on Amazon, both of which deal with World War II era themes as well as the History Channel’s “Hunting Hitler” series.

When creating a television series in Germany, “there is fear that the audience might identify too much with the character of Hitler,” Stein adds. “You have to do it very responsibly."

'The perfect Nazi'

Davidson, the BBC’s former Commissioning Editor in History, spoke about his own grandfather, a dentist and Nazi. He knew Adolf Eichmann, for a time working in the same department of the SS, the paramilitary organization most responsible for carrying out the genocide against the Jews.  

Davidson wrote a book, “The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Secret Past” and is currently working on a documentary about the Holocaust for German Television.

The enigma of Hitler why he has his legacy still haunt us is because people are still trying to understand, he asks: why did that logic of Nazism make sense to his followers?

“Most people have an idea of a slippery slope – a bit of resentment here and there and before you know it, ordinary people are led down a path of doing things they could not previously think of doing,” Davidson says. “Every stage of the Holocaust was a learning curve for Hitler, what is it possible to get people to do?  It’s a phenomenon whose shadow we still live with around the world.”