“Hitler Lives!”: Hitler and the Apocalypse in Hollywood Fantasy Films
“Hitler Lives!”–the clichéd marquee headline for the numerous films purporting to trace his after-life. That Hitler did not die in the bunker, a victim of his own hand, the right hand rather than the left one most probably shaking from Parkinson’s, is not just the creation of Hollywood’s Hitler fantasy films of the 1950s-1970s. Stalin himself spread the rumor, days after the Soviets had spirited away whatever charred bones remained in the crater in the Chancellery gardens.1 Indeed, the Russians at first denied anything had been found–there was no Hitler. Perhaps he had escaped to his hideout in Bavaria or to South America? Or had he risen like Lazarus from the tomb?
Later, Nazis would come forward who had witnessed the burning, indeed assisted in carrying both the Führer, his left hand protruding from underneath the sheet, and his wife of one day from their suite in the bunker along the narrow hallway, and down the steep staircase leading to the garden outside, there to bury the couple in a shallow hole, courtesy of a Russian mortar shell. Witnessing the spectacle, Goebbels, when his turn came to emulate “The Boss,” was thoughtful enough to commit suicide at the top of the stairs.
By now, Hitler is surely dead, whether he died in that bunker or not. Still, in Hollywood’s dream factory facts can pale beside fiction, here that of Hitler’s after-life testifying both to the fascination of people everywhere with the man himself and, in ways both human and neurotic, the fear that what he represented could and really does go on. The essence of this little man outlives the actual historical figure, plagued with a bulbous nose, unruly hair, bad breath, and flatulence, that quivering left hand, and various neurological, not to mention personality disorders. We fear that he, or what he “is,” did not die in the bunker, that the apocalypse he threatened to inflict in the 1940s–the destruction of the free world, the “end of civilization as we know it,” a Wagner-like Die Gotterdammerung, call it what you will—he threatens again, this time in some hideous reincarnation.2
The Hitler fantasy films, which range from trash–we will examine three of them: They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Flesh Feast, and She Demons–to more sophisticated works like The Boys from Brazil, are all cast from the same general mold, reworking the myth of Hitler the spirit, not crushed but enhanced by defeat, and emerging from death that much more potent.3 No two films are the same, of course, but most partake in several of the following generic characteristics.
Hitler does not die in the bunker, but escapes. In rare instances the escape is literal. But since the decrepit figure in the bunker spoils the image of the Aryan superman, more often than not the escape is through a rebirth fostered by modern science. Hitler’s DNA is implanted in surrogate mothers or preserved to be used at a later date when the science of regeneration has matured. Or part of his body, usually the brain, is taken and kept alive, hence the title They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
This effort to resurrect Hitler and thereby defeat death is itself inseparable from the Nazi’s own fascination with death. We will think of their insufferable ceremonies honoring martyrs, always conducted at night before an audience anonymous in the darkness, the tomb alone lit by blazing searchlights borrowed from anti-aircraft installations. Or the skull insignia of the SS. Death itself became a tool to re-sculpture a more idealized Germany by eradicating “lives not worth living,” all this culminating in Hitler’s own orders to Speer that in the final days of the war all life supports be destroyed since the German people, having betrayed him, were no longer worthy of surviving, that the Fatherland should perish in with him.
The Hitler thus saved is, almost without fail, transported to South America, rather than Asia or Africa, or North America. Of course, there was historical precedent for this, what with the number of Nazis who escaped to Brazil or Argentina, or other South American countries.4 But South America surely also holds symbolic values, especially for American filmmakers. It is the “other half” of the continent, the “neighbor” of the United States, and the object of both this country’s posture of superiority and its uncertainty. With US policy dominating the Southern Hemisphere, from the Monroe Doctrine onward, the fear remains that our “neighbors to the south” might sweep up through Central America and overwhelm us, fears that were fanned especially during the Cold War. Paraguay, Bolivia, not to mention Argentina and Brazil, become potential “little Soviet Unions,” flirting with Communist governments, the seed ground for Bolshevism. Despite Russia’s decline, the fear remains, even today, that Latin America will overwhelm us not with guns but with its excess and hungry population, that hoards will sweep across the California and Texas borders, taking away jobs, ruining the welfare system, implanting a strange language in place of English.
In the Hitler fantasy films, then, this anti-Latino phobia and racism–“they are “hot blooded,” “too sexually active,” “impulsive,” “clannish”–melds with the Cold War fear that the Soviet Union is run more efficiently, more ruthlessly, with a singular purpose of world domination, and not hobbled by the slower machinery of a democracy. Already resentful of the United States for reasons both understandable and inexplicable, a Communist Latin America–a Chavez Venezuela, an Allende Chile–will destroy us. Hence, this fear that the Hitler genes, or his brain, are transported out of Berlin to “south of the border” is more than just a reflection of historical fact.
This filmic resurrected Hitler is aided by people with a grudge against the Untied States–ex-Nazis, deported Mafia bosses, men and women who, for a variety of reasons, have not made it in a competitive American society, Communists (who form a curious brotherhood with National Socialists), or simply madmen or malcontents. Just as the historical Hitler springs, it is argued, from the wounded psyche of the German people, its frustrations over defeat in World War I or alleged maltreatment at the hands of the Versailles Treaty, the reincarnation of Hitler becomes an instrument of revenge for the dispossessed.
The new Hitler invariably loses a second time, is defeated at the hands of the prototypical movie hero, whether it be the American patriot, the comforting father-figure who upholds the “family values” of the 1950s, or–in several instances–one of Hitler’s victims, most often the Jew. But the process never ends. Defeated in one film, the Hitler resassembled from genetic scrapings lives again in the next installment. Or, in the tradition of the “catcher” of Hollywood films, the ending is ambiguous when we see, in the fleeting moments, another embryonic Hitler about to be born, the successful hero expressing doubts that this is “the end of the nightmare.”
It is revealing that the actual Hitler, or even that resurrected Hitler, usually makes only a cameo appearance in these films. The scriptwriters and directors are no longer interested in the real-life man–leave that to the psychological portraits in the movies of the 1980s and 90s. The actual, the historical Hitler himself is almost irrelevant, a minor character. At issue, rather, is how both his supporters and detractors perceive him. Just as Shakespeare’s Caesar appears only once in the play’s two final acts, after having monopolized the first three, here Hitler is confined to a portrait on the wall, a bit of newspaper footage, perhaps a close-up of the brain smiling eerily from a bell jar.
They Saved Hitler’s Brain
They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968) is a low-budget film of the worst order, where the director, Stanley Cortex, otherwise possessed of some real talent (The Magnificent Ambersons and Night of the Hunter), makes every cheap move in the book: sudden plot deviations, inauthentic sets out of the period, confusing doubling of actors to save money, dime-store props, footage and even music borrowed from other films. In fact, the film itself is a crude grafting of two films shots in two different decades, the original subsequently lengthened for television.5
The film’s second half, set on the island of Mandoras where the Hitler fanatics live, is only thinly related to the first half. There, a Dr. Bernard, who has discovered the formula for G-Gas, a highly poisonous substance which can destroy the world, is murdered, his death investigated by Vic, a government agent aided by a young female assistant. Though the movie’s first half was shot in the 1960s, a photo of Eisenhower on the agent’s wall is intended to place the action in the Cold War period. A second scientist, Dr. Coleman, who has the formula for an anecdote to G-Gas, is likewise murdered. When Vic and the assistant are killed in turn, a young married couple take up the chase as the film moves to Mandoras. There the villains, Nazis, and locals in league with them, have the formula for G-Gas (and its anecdote) with which they plan to destroy “all life on earth” or, alternately, to “annihilate the world.”
Still, this (almost) irrelevant first half is not without interest when it comes to the Hitler myth. Even before we move to Mandoras, identified only as “an island somewhere off the coast of South America,” there are numerous Latino and Germanic villains working in collaboration. The first half also underscores the incompetence of the government to deal with the threat: the “Criminal Investigation Division of the FBI” is helpless, its operatives either murdered or merely written out of the film. Rather, the search for G-Gas relies on individual, private effort, when Phil Day takes along his wife KC in the search for Suzanne, KC’s sister and also the daughter of Dr. Coleman, who was kidnapped after her father’s murder and–for no apparent reason–sent to the island.
In this first half, there is only the briefest allusion to the Hitler, something of a “teaser” to be unveiled in the second half. Even the teaser was watered down when the film’s two earlier titles, The Madmen of Mandoras and its sequel The Amazing Mr. H. (the H itself a teaser for Hitler), were converted to They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
To a degree, the second half offers more of the same, with Phil and KC, often aided by “good Hispanics” (including the Mayor, a former Nazi sympathizer who turns against them), chasing and then caught by the Nazis, and then escaping so that in the waning minutes they can foil the plan to conquer of the world, using Mandoras as a base. But more original is the sequence where one of those “good Hispanics,” Camino (who will later be rewarded by marrying KC’s daffy sister Suzanne), offers a filmic montage of the story leading up to the present. When Camino first mentions the Nazi’s plan, Phil is incredulous: “Surely a few fanatic can’t upset the world.” Camino ominously changes the plural to a singular, “one fanatic”–Hitler. With Camino framed in the right third of the screen, we see a re-enactment of the relevant events from the past. Camino first relates the circumstances of Hitler’s suicide as the Allies approached Berlin, even citing the confusion surrounding the badly burned corpse. “A large part of the world rejoiced in the news,” he tells husband and wife, and “A lot of rumors had to be checked out … Nothing was left to chance.” We then see an operating room where the body of Hitler lies on a bed, attended by surgeons. Having infiltrated Hitler’s inner circle of physicians, Camino’s brother Theo (who was murdered in the film’s first half after providing evidence to the now deceased agent Vic) was part of the operating team. This is how Camino knows about the operation, after which all the surgeons were otherwise shot, Theo himself having miraculously escaped with just surface wounds. Camino notes that some people thought Hitler was getting daily hormone shots and then adds, “But the truth was worse than that.” He speaks of “Hitler’s fear of death” that generated the strategy to preserve him–at least in part. Convinced that his doctors “could give him perpetual life,” Hitler ordered one of his doubles (part of “a succession of Mr. H’s”) to be killed in order to substitute for the charred body outside the bunker. Meanwhile surgeons removed the head of the real Hitler, with the brain then smuggled out of Berlin in a military cargo plane. Why, one might ask, didn’t they just smuggle out the complete live Hitler–the movie has no answer. This head, preserved in a glass jar, now gives order from the Governor’s mansion in Madoras.
Actually, the head is something of a comic figure, not so much giving orders as occasionally yelling out “Mach schnell! Mach schnell!” Later it is transported in a car’s back seat to the canyon where German generals will assemble in a cave to begin operations, first destroying Madoras, then somehow making it the base of their operations, before spreading out to conquer the world. When the Governor, grieving at the death of the son, turns against the Nazis, he is shot down and we cut to a close-up of the head, offering an “evil grin” to ratify the ceremony. The head mostly reacts, even though Hitler is still deferred to; at one point, a conspirator, Dvorak, the lone survivor of the successful Allied attack at the canyon, addresses the head, “There’s been a change of plans, my Führer,” upon which he hops into the car with, “We will got to the town and release the gas ourselves.” But when the Hitler-mobile stalls, our heroes toss a hand grenade in its path and the last we see is a wax Hitler melting away in the flames. The world is saved for another day; Phil and KC and the newly minted couple Camino and Suzanne are seen embracing at the end.
This wretched film still embodies the major issues, fetishes, hobbyhorses that, in varying degrees, are endemic to all of the Hitler fantasy films. Though practically mute, Hitler is the guiding spirit her. G-Gas promises to be more powerful than any of the various V rockets. This time the object of conquest is not just Europe but the entire world. Whatever real-life animosity existed between Germany and Russia, especially after the former broke their dubious 1941 peace treaty, is swept away as the Cold War fear of Communism is superimposed over the Nazis superman theories. South America, here the fictional island of Mandoras, becomes the halfway point for this meeting of the minds. Aided by his wife, it is the FBI agent but operating as a private citizen who defeats the Nazis: the couple that stays together fights together. The portrait of Latinos is ambiguous: some are stereotypical South American villains, others heroes, still others, like the Governor, turncoats who wind up on the side of the heroes. Why Hitler was the way he was, the task of explaining Hitler, is not the issue. By this time, the 1950s and 60s, he simply “is,” even if that “is” happens to be reduced to one severed head. Like Shakespeare Caesar, it is no longer the body but his spirit of the man.
In one sense, the film is rooted in reality, however tentatively: rumors about Hitler’s death and the purported events of the last days in the bunker. But in equal measure, it uses such historical fact as a springboard for fantasy. It trades, in effect, on both the real-life Hitler and the generic screen villain. The “They” in the title, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, ramifies to all the nameless “they”s who prey on American insecurities, dread of international entanglements, and anxiety about the dispossessed ruining the good life as manifest here in the heroic couple Phil and KC. The comic dimensions of Hitler–spouting his guttural German, staring with his beady eyes from the jar, being driven in the back seat of the car like some disgruntled mother-in-law–is a far cry from the comically realistic portrait of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The Hitler here lacks the psychological complexity of the figures found in the Hitler biographical films of the 1980s to the present day. Here he is only the Hitler of fantasy films, at one with the aliens from They Came from Outer Space and Them. At issue is not portraying Hitler, but staging how we feel about him, the mythic figure who supersedes the facts.
Flesh Feast and She Demons
Coupled with They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Flesh Feast and She Demons circumscribe the “aesthetics” of the Hitler fantasy films.
A 1970 film, Flesh Feast exploits anxieties over Castro and Communist Cuba, here aggravated by the presence of Hitler’s spirit.6 Again, there is a curious union of Bolshevism and National Socialism, with no sense of the irony in that pairing.
The editor of a local newspaper, Ed Casey, for some unexplained reason assists a Dr. Frederick by supplying bodies from a local hospital to serve as a breeding ground for maggots. Dr. Fredericks, played by the faded screen actress Veronica Lake (who will be remembered from the movie I Married a Witch as well as her trademark long hair falling over her right eye), is assisted by one Benito Paris, the handsome lover-leader of a group of fellow Latino Nazis, and so while the movie is not explicitly set in South or Central America, in a way the Southern Hemisphere comes to the movie. Dr. Frederick is experimenting on a youth-restoring compound, made from chemicals extracted from maggots, and she anticipates a visit to her laboratory from Hitler seeking to reverse his old age. Her boyfriend, Karl Shuman, is a former underground munitions runner who used to work for Castro but, despairing of Communism, now assists her in procuring prospective clients.
This is also a curious variation on what we have seen in the cultural and racist prejudices of They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Whereas leftists otherwise merge with right-wingers such as National Socialists in the campaign to dominate the world, one of the Latino Gestapo, Jose, after first trying to molest a young girl named Sharon who is being held hostage by Benito Paris, later falls in love with her, his dream being to use his salary as a Gestapo someday to buy a little home, marry, and lead the good life.
In its surprise ending Flesh Feast provides a twist on the generic Hitler fantasy formula. Hitler finally appears, ready for Dr. Frederick’s rejuvenation process, but once he is strapped on the table, the camera tilts upward to reveal the portrait of an old woman on the wall, smiling down at the proceedings. Though there have been a few hints earlier, we now learn that the old woman in the picture is Dr. Frederick’s mother, who died at Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp, where the physician in charge, Dr. Gerbart, experimented on patients by infecting them with gangrene. Hitler, in fact, gave Gerbart a medal praising him for his “interesting research.”
Posing for years as a mad scientist and a willing collaborator with the Nazis, Dr. Frederick has been waiting all this time for this chance to take revenge on Hitler. The maggot rejuvenation cure was a sham, a lure to flush him out. With a fiendish laugh, she applies a bucket of maggot to the Führer’s face and he is grotesquely eaten by the little creatures.
The movie adopts the genre of the Renaissance revenge tragedy, with Dr. Fredericks’s recreating the role of the revenger so popular in Shakespeare’s day, in everything from pedestrian works like Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1600) to Shakespeare’s masterpiece a year later in Hamlet. The revenge genre has several “rules”. An unspeakable crime has been committed before the play begins (the Holocaust, the rape-murder by Duke Lussurioso of Vindice’s fiancé in Tourneur’s play, Claudius’s regicide in Shakespeare’s). But the revenger, rather than just retaliating directly, becomes something of a playwright, devising a scenario to entice the villain, and in that little play parodying the original crime: Hitler in Flesh Feast becomes the victim, just as Lussurioso and Claudius do, in each case the villain’s death providing a savage, ironic commentary on his crimes. One interesting difference between Flesh Feast and the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, however, is that in the latter the audience knows from the start of the revenger’s plan, or learns of it at least part way through the play. Here, Dr. Frederick’s last-minute revenge is something of a surprise to the movie audience, though, in retrospect, there are hints, sometime deliberate, others inadvertent and the result of bad film-making, that the mad scientist is not all that she seems.
But in all cases, the revenge taken recreates and then inverts the past through its parody, the victim becoming an actor unawares, lured to his or her death through the revenge’s knowledge of a personal weakness: here, the fantasy Hitler’s search for youth or immortality.
The 1958 film She Demons partakes with variations of the same generic formula as They Saved Hitler’s Brain and Flesh Feast.7 Again, the setting is the jungles somewhere in Central or South America. Presiding over a concentration camp run by Nazi guards is a mad scientist, Dr. Osler, searching for a youth-restoring drug to administer to his wife who has aged unnaturally. The inmates of the camp are shapely young women, subject of Osler’s fiendish experiments. Osler himself, we learn, has been tried by the War Crimes Committee, found guilty and branded as “the butcher,” only to escape. He has something of the split personality of Nazis like Eichmann or Hess, or even Speer. Indifferent in his “profession” to the suffering of others, a combination of Mengele and the staff at Ravensbrück, on the domestic side he is the loving husband, desperate for a cure for his wife who was once his laboratory assistant and in that job infected with a mysterious aging illness.
Successfully battling Osler is a curious trinity: the generic handsome hero Tod Griffin; a spoiled rich girl Irish McCall, whom he has been sent to find only to be shipwrecked with her on Osler’s island; and their friend, an unnamed Asian-American. At the end, the island is destroyed by the US Air Force who are using it for a testing grounds. Our heroic trinity escapes in a rowboat.
Hitler himself is not present, not even as a disembodied head as in They Save Hitler’s Brain, let alone a portrait on the wall. Nevertheless, his spirit broods over the picture, and is refigured in the character of Osler who outdoes him in his quest for world domination. Osler even as he adopts the Führer’s obsession with racial purifications, transforming an old diseased hag into a virile young woman, born of glandular extractions from the young, but non-Germanic women imprisoned in the concentration camp. The defeat here of the Hitler-prototypes is the not the work of any individual (the trinity proves helpless) but rather a deus ex machina: the Air Force planes sent on a practice bombing mission.
Perfecting the Genre: The Boys from Brazil
Based on Ira Levin’s novel, The Boys from Brazil (1978) is different both in quality and “quantity” from the fantasy films discussed so far.8 Quality is a given, for it is a major Hollywood film with important stars (Gregory Peck as Mengele, Laurence Olivier as Lieberman, James Mason as the Nazi boss), ambitious camera work that takes the viewer all over America and Europe, and intelligent dialogue.
However, as with most Hitler fantasy films at its core is the “Hitler Lives” motif, in this case through DNA scrapings from the dead dictator’s ribs and fingernails which are then used to clone 94 prototypes, born by surrogate mothers. The blue-eyed boys–the film adopts the legend that Hitler’s piercing eyes were blue–are raised by foster families around the world, in environments duplicating Hitler’s own childhood: a permissive, adoring mother, much younger than her abusive husband. Once again, the setting is South America–Brazil and Paraguay, specifically. A young Jewish crusader trying to alert Lieberman, who has spent a lifetime tracking down Joseph Mengele, the notorious doctor who experimented on inmates at the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, is told, “You called me to tell me Joseph Mengele is in Paraguay? You know this. I know this. My sister’s tailor knows this.”
Mengele, played by Gregory Peck, is the Hitler surrogate, possessed, as “The Boss” could be, of great charm, especially when around women, and yet given to sudden to violent outbursts. Curiously missing, or at least muted here is the “Conquer the World” motif. There is also little discussion about why Mengele wants to make clones of Hitler, although we may assume that in some later installment he will use them for world domination. Instead, we are left with the almost comic possibility that he seeks new Hitlers because he misses the old one, or because he enjoys the thrill of scientific discovery. In this regard, The Boys from Brazil is more rooted in fact that most fantasy films. Not only is Mengele so named in the film, but the clone scheme bears eerie parallels with the fiendish doctor’s own experiments: he explored the nature/nurture debate with identical twins, injecting them with all sorts of toxic drugs and performing surgical protocols. Then, too, the real-life Mengele did live in South America, though this fact was not confirmed until his death in 1985, almost seven year after the film was made. Lieberman, the Jewish Nazi hunter, is clearly based on Simon Wiesenthal, who alone among his family survived a Nazi concentration camp. Lee Silver points out that Wiesenthal, who still lives in Vienna, spent his entire life pursuing Nazis without help from anyone during the 1970s. Olivier in turn bases his portrait of Liberman in part on his performance as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.9
What is different in quantity in this movie is the fact that the “Hitler Lives” myth is coupled with the demon children endemic to numerous horror films, from The Bad Seed to the various “child monster” movies of today. The clones have Hitler dark shock of hair, cold, loveless demeanor, lack of affection, and are absolutely amoral in their interaction with adults. Here the novel and film clearly reflect several of the psychoanalytic studies of Hitler’s youth: the odd child alternately resentful and sentimental as he claims in Mein Kampf, beaten by a father who also tried to force him into a career in the civil service, thereby offending his “artistic” temperament; the boy who adored his mother, was loving and caring for her during her illness, shed, in fact, his only tears at her death. All that we see of the adult Hitler, however, is a portrait on the wall of Mengele’s study.
The film also takes up the nature/nurture debate. Mengele’s scheme is to raise the clones in identical environments, on the assumption that it was nuture (his parents, society, circumstances) which produced Hitler. But many viewers point out the impossibility of duplicating ninety-four such environments world-wide, even though the clones in the film are indeed identical in personality, even in hobbies. Still, however flawed the science may be, the fact is that, unlike the majority of Hitler fantasy films, The Boys from Brazil does not simply operate on the premise that Hitler was non-human, or incarnate evil. Rather, it suggest that he was the product of his times, born out of adverse events both in his family and in Germany from the 1910s to the 30s.
The other characters also avoid the caricatures of the fantasy films. Ezra Lieberman, though the hero, is first seen in his declining days, exhausted by his Nazi hunting, almost bored with the struggle, now content to putter about his apartment, even though goaded by his opinionated sister, played by Lily Palmer. A man of some sensibilities, James Mason’s Nazi, appalled by the murders vital to Mengele’s plans whereby the surrogate fathers must all be killed off, attempts to stop the mad scientist. The various other Nazis are not the stereotypical figures, parading in their jackboots, ruthlessly efficient, unquestioning of the doctrine of Aryan superiority. Most seem very ordinary men, nasty to be sure, small-minded and banal in their evil, yet still recognizably human. This same human dimension informs the ending where two old men debate whether or not to kill the one remaining Hitler clone. If he is demonic, the eradication would be a public service. But when the boy is saved by Lieberman, the film suddenly moves away from such theological absolutes. The boy is just a boy, not fully responsible for what he is, in fact less responsible than most boys his age given the circumstances of his conception, birth, and upbringing. After all, who would have chosen an abusive father?
It pains most sensitive people to think that Hitler was once a baby (let alone a boy), innocent, nursing at his mother’s breast. That very thought drives the French director Claude Landsman to distraction: any attempt to explain Hitler, to suggest a dimension of the human in him, is blasphemy, an offense to those who suffered in the Holocaust. Landsman links those who attempt to explain Hitler with the deniers of the Holocaust.10 The questions, the possibilities stab like knives to the chest. Did Hitler not love his mother? Did he not weep at her death? Were his dreams of success–as an as artist, as a lover–that much different from those of ordinary young men? The doomsday scenario promised by the cloned “Hitlers” of The Boys from Brazil is averted—or almost, save for this one boy—but, unlike the other fantasy films, the portrait of Hitler here has recognizable human dimensions. Terrifying and yet not monsters, or the image of absolute evil, the Hitler clones themselves are not fully responsible for being what they are.
For these reasons, The Boys from Brazil is controversial in the way that the more recent film Max has been received.11 That film traces Hitler’s uneasy friendship with Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer who acted as Hitler’s business partner, selling his mediocre watercolors and sketches around Vienna for a fifty percent commission. Hitler’s relation with his agent is a curious combination of love and hate, at times almost resembling that of father and son, even homoerotic. Audience often wince when Max puts a loving arm around the future Führer, and when Max fails to appear at a restaurant for a luncheon with Hitler, he acts as if were stood up by his date. At one moderately tender moment, Hitler even admits that his business partner “is not bad for a Jew.”
Still, while The Boys from Brazil posits environmental, psychological, and social influences on Hitler’s personality, and therefore does not resort to the two-dimensional allegorical monster of most fantasy films, the fact remains that Max attempts to examine the historical figure. Taking place after the fact of Führer’s life, The Boys from Brazil, looks only indirectly at Hitler, through clones, and any humanizing is vitiated by his re-emergence in young boys whose upbringing only approximates the actual circumstances of their progenitor.
Fantasy Films, Hitler, and the End of the World
Even with this qualification about the “human” dimension of Hitler in The Boys from Brazil, still, like those low-budget fantasy films examined earlier, it also plays on or exploits our horror at the man who would conquer the world and, reincarnated by means of DNA scrapings, the rejuvenation of the dead body, or glandular extracts, our fear that the threat remains with us. It is telling that religious and political extremists today often equate public figures they dislike or policies they oppose with Hitler and the Holocaust. President Obama has not been immune to such slander.
Yet perhaps even the most assiduous scholar writing the most carefully researched biography of Hitler may also perpetuate that mythic figure. In his careful review of various attempt to explain Hitler, to uncover the causes that made him what he was, Ron Rosenbaum suggests that the moment we admit that no one explanation of Hitler is the “only” one, let alone the right one–and it would be difficult to imagine anyone arrogant enough to think he nor she has an exclusive claim on the truth here–then we are left with the Hitler as we fashion him, some of those fashionings, to be sure, more responsible, more reasonable than others.12
For instance, was Hitler a homosexual?13 Perhaps? But to go from that “perhaps” to explaining all his actions on the basis of his sexual orientation is another thing. Did he kill Röhm solely because Röhm was going to spill the beans about his gay life? Is Hitler’s absurd refusal, until the final months of the war, to allow women in the workforce the sign that, as a homosexual, he discounted their gender?
Our fashionings of Hitler unwittingly sustain the power of this dead man who, like some black hole, draws in and consumes all attempts to fix him in any recognizable human pattern. The writers and directors responsible for They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Flesh Feast, and She Demons took the easy way out, portraying a Hitler who is the Devil himself, absolute evil, a non-human insuperable agent of Fate. The Boys from Brazil and Max represent more complex, sophisticate attempts, and yet, in a way, are more terrifying than those of the fantasy films: if Hitler is human, or in part human, if he is like us, then what he represents indeed does not die, is always present. There is no need for those DNA scrapings or bodies raised from the dead. With the eternal threat of Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, this concept of Hitler admits only a single rider rather than the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And like those responsible for these fifth-rate fantasy films, we are left not with the man but with his effects, what he did, and of that we can be sure, in everything from the grisly body counts to the chronology of his victories and then defeats in the war.
These low-budget Hollywood films capitalized on fears of the atomic bomb and the Cold War in the 1950s through the 1970s, offering a simplified villain to end all villains, a poor man’s Milton’s Satan, usually keeping him at a safe distance in South America. But their popularity suggests that the movie-going public, in their fear and fascination with this apocalyptic figure, still shared something in common with Alan Bullock, Trevor-Roper, Emil Fackenheiim, George Steiner, and others whose theories of why Hitler was Hitler are examined so assiduously in Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler.
Whether Hitler was human or not, like us or some aberration of the species, we wrestle with the task of understanding him, portraying him in our literature and films. If they share our fears, the fantasy films at the end, in the final reel, also allow a victory over seemingly insuperable evil. Note the fortuitous bombing raid that destroys the Hitler/Mengele figure of Osric at the end of She Demons, or the last-minute revelation in Flesh Feast that Dr. Fredericks is a Jew revenging the death of her mother in the concentration camps. Such endings may be shallow, illogical, unexpected, but the victory is there nevertheless. At length, we no longer need to fear the Hitler reincarnation.
Ultimately, our real fears are with this present world: the Nazi skin-heads, the White Nation cult living in the hills that isolates itself from the main and diverse stream of American society, the self-righteous tyrants or fascists, whether at home or abroad, who like Hitler know “what’s best for the world” and so try to hammer out their redemptive scheme. These are real fears; the fantasy films remain just that, but are not without instruction.
1. See Lev Bezmenski, The Death of Adolph Hitler (New York: Harcourt, Brace,
and World, 1968) and Ada Petrova and Peter Watson, The Death of Hitler (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1995). And the discussion in Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 78-80. A most fascinating, indeed contrary book on this notion of the apocalypse is Michael Andre Berstein’s Forgone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).
2. There are, of course, numerous studies, indeed an overwhelming number of studies of Hitler, his mind, his personality, his psychopathology. We have found especially useful the following:
Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1964).
Norbert Bromberg and Verna Volz Small, Hitler’s Psychopathology (New York: International Universities Press, 1983).
Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973).
Ian Kershaw, The Hitler Myth (Oxford: Oxford Universisty Press, 1987).
Walter Langer, The Mind of Adolph Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 1972).
Werner Maser, Hitler: Legend, Myth, and Reality, trans, Peter and Betty Ross (New York: Harper and Row, 1973).
Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Imagining Hitler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).
Gabriel David Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism (Cambridge: At the University Press, 2005).
Robert Waite, The Psychopathic God: Adolph Hitler (Cambridge, Mass.: Da
3. For an account of these and other fantasy films about Hitler, see the invaluable book by Charles Mitchell, The Hitler Filmography: Worldwide Feature Films and Television Miniseries (New York: McFarland and Co. Inc., 2002). Also, Michael R. Pitts, Allied Artists: Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films (New York: McFarland Publishers. 2011).
4. Perón, President of Argentina at the time, led an efforts to “save” as many Nazi military officers as he could. In memoirs he dictated into a tape recorder during his exile in Spain he said that he had done it to save the military honor of the men, which had been severely bruised by the Nuremberg trials in the forties, after the war. The Catholic Church and the Vatican were also involved in the task of smuggling war criminals to Latin America. Let us not forget that Albert Eichman was discovered and kidnapped in Argentina. The Catholic Archbishop of Buenos Aires put forth a strident complaint for this event. See Uki Goñi, The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron’s Argentina (New York: Granta Books, 2003).
5. For commentary and reviews of They Saved Hitler’s Brain see:
<http://www.thespinningimage.co.uk/cultfilms/displaycultfilm.asp?reviewid=496> (accessed 30 June, 2011).
6. For commentary and reviews of Flesh Feast see: <http://www.stomptokyo.com/otf/Flesh-Feast/Flesh-Feast.htm>;
<http://www.fright.com/edge/Flesh%20Feast.htm> (accessed 30 June, 2011).
7. For commentary and reviews of She Demons see:
<http://www.uen.org/tv/scifi/she_demons.shtml> (accessed 30 June, 2011).
8. For commentary and reviews of The Boys from Brazil see:
<http://www.answers.com/topic/the-boys-from-brazil-film> (accessed 30 June, 2011).
9. Commentary from Lee. M. Silver’s Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering Will Transform the American Family (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), at: <http://arwicu.wetpaint.com/page/Lee+M.+Silver> (accessed 30 June, 2011).
10. See the solid analysis of Landsman’s position in Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, 251-55. And Claude Lanzmann in “The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann,” American Imago 48.4 (1991): 473-95.
11. For example, Moira Macdonald’s article “John Cusack Find Controversy as Max Brings Hitler to the Screen,” The Seattle Times (March 4, 2003): at http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20030304&slug=cusack04 (accessed 30 June, 2011). But, from a different perspective, equal controversy has been generated by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen who indicts large numbers of the German people as knowing and either passively or actively participating in the Holocaust: Hitler’s Willing Executioners (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).
12. Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler, comments that “Hitler explanations … are cultural self-portraits; the shapes we project onto the inky Rorschach of Hitler’s psyche are often cultural self-portraits in the negative. What we talk about when we talk about Hitler is also who we are and who we are not.” (p. xxv). And on this notion of self-fashioning, from the perspective of Shakespeare and the Renaissance, see: Steven Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).
13. The claim that Hitler was a homosexual has been advanced by Lothar Machtan, The Hidden Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 2001).