This timely documentary takes on a huge question: Can we ever really understand Hitler and people’s endless fascination with him? It’s a daunting task, since there have been countless other documentaries, books, and fictions dedicated to that same quest. The filmmakers flit around the world talking to experts and provocateurs who have been thinking on the question for decades. The title comes from a book by Sebastian Haffner, with its chapter titles serving as the structure of the film and jumping off points for discussion. Directed by  Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, The Meaning of Hitler is less a history lesson than a frightening illustration that the very conditions that allowed for Hitler are present and growing today. 

At one point the filmmakers talk about how they don’t want to make another film that feeds into the fascination with fascism and Hitler that media perpetuates. Whether mocking him, as in Jojo Rabbit or The Producers show-stopping “Springtime for Hitler”, or the many historical depictions that demonize the man or keep him alive, his presence does not diminish. Young people generations removed from the Holocaust are seeing him in a false social media narrative spun by a new propagandists. Holocaust denier and raging anti-Semite David Irving is given time in the film to show off his ugly self taking acolytes on a bucket-list Hitler tour stopping at Treblinka, an extermination camp in Poland, where he mocks the victims.

Of course, you can’t make a film about Hitler now without mentioning the elephant in the room – Trump. A handful of eminent historians weigh in on the hallmarks of the Nazi’s successful rise, and of course they sound all too familiar. Novelist Martin Amis lists three of the biggest similarities – the undermining of state institutions to elevate one’s own office; the disappearance of any pretense of truthfulness; and even germ phobia. No wonder America’s neo-Nazis and the Trump team feel so comfortable together.

There are a lot of thought provoking moments in the film to be sure, but by the end, Hitler and what he means is still a big question. The more important question though and where the film leads us is: how do we deal with the present tilt towards authoritarianism, here in America and around the world? And that is where history may provide answers. I’m not sure this film will wake up any neo-Nazis or stop any anti-Semites, but I hope it is seen by people who are capable of taking a hard look at where we’re going and seeing how horrifying that future actually could be.

In theaters and on demand beginning August 13th.

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