About Hitler in the Movies

In a projected book, Hitler in the Movies, my colleague in Sociology Hernan Vera and I explore the fascination we have with Adolph Hitler.  From disbelief or repulsion to guarded praise for his so-called “genius,” the basic question remains: why was Hitler … Hitler?  In his book Explaining Hitler Ron Rosenbaum reviews studies and commentaries on Hitler as he likewise asks: what made Hitler … Hitler?  We view the Hitler character through feature films and documentaries because this constructed character is the Hitler most people today know and identify as the immutable symbol of evil.

While it is based on serious scholarship, the book is designed for the general reader.  We look at how filmmakers, directors, and actors have accounted for this monster in a medium that reflects public tastes and opinions.  We examine these films not solely for themselves or their portraits of Hitler, but rather to define through the reverse mirror of Hitler’s proposed Thousand Year Reich what sociologists have called “the good society.”  And to what degree is Hitler and his National Socialism still “alive” in contemporary politics?

Most of the films are familiar to the general public.  In the opening chapter on “The Comic Hitler” we look at, among others, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, farcical shorts by The Three Stooges, and Mel Brooks’s “fascination” with Hitler in the 1983 remake of the 1942 To Be or Not To Be, as well as the Hitler cameos in Blazing Saddles and The Producers.  In Chapter 2, “The Fantasy Hitler,” we turn to such films as The Boys from Brazil, the 1967 thriller Hitler Lives! where Hitler returns as a senile old man, Hard Rock Zombie of 1984, Hitler Meets Christ (2000), and They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963/68).  Situated halfway between comedies and serious works, these fantasy films often bring Hitler back to life.  Subsequent chapters treat: “Serious Portraits of Hitler” (Chapter 3) such as Hitler the failed artist in Max or the current and controversial German film Downfall; “The Hitler Documentaries” (Chapter 4) from Triumph of the Will to Hitler, Architect of Doom, where facts and newsreel footage are mixed with fictive recreations of Hitler and the agenda of the filmmaker.  In “The Presence of Hitler” (Chapter 5) we consider ways in which the historical figure influences screen villains, in films such as Apt Pupil and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Finally, the recent comparison by playwright Harold Pinter between Hitler and George Bush leads us in a final chapter to speculate how these various images of Hitler  survive in today’s politics, culture, literature, and society.