How Trump’s Twitter Echoes Hitler’s Microphone
The new documentary “The Meaning of Hitler” draws parallels between the Nazi dictator and Trump—including their favored methods of communication.
“You might as well get on to his similarities with Trump,” remarks author Martin Amis at the outset of The Meaning of Hitler, before then opining that those parallels include a desire to undermine state institutions in order to magnify his preeminent position of power, a fanatical interest in cleanliness, and habitual and strategic dishonesty. To Amis, it’s the last of those qualities that was central to Hitler’s rise, since, “Here was a head of state who didn’t mind lying. There is no downside to lying. It’s terrific at first, because it looks for a moment as if everything is possible.”
After four long years of the Trump presidency, such notions will sound all-too-familiar to viewers of The Meaning of Hitler, and directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker routinely return to Trump—through video clips and soundbites—to demonstrate the depressingly pressing connections between the 1930s-1940s and 2020. Far more than a critique of Trump, however, the duo’s documentary (premiering online at DOC NYC from Nov. 11-19) is a quest to understand the 20th century’s most notorious monster as both a person and an idea that continues to flourish across the globe, be it in celebratory gatherings in Poland or tiki torch-lit marches through Charlottesville, Virginia. According to Epperlein and Tucker, the specter of Hitler remains as pervasive and dangerous as ever. And thus, comprehending the man and the myth is crucial to comprehending our modern condition.
The Meaning of Hitler recognizes the inherent difficulty of that process. Inspired by Sebastian Haffner’s bestselling 1978 book of the same name—to the point of structuring itself around that tome’s chapters, replete with narrated readings of its prose—the film is an avant-garde reckoning with the possible impossibility of grasping the totality of who Hitler was and what he meant, and it begins with director Epperlein openly confessing that she wondered whether or not to make the film after realizing that tackling Hitler meant sorting out the meaning of history itself. Giving literal voice to its creators’ doubts and fears, the ensuing critical examination is a collage-like non-fiction essay intent on revisiting yesterday as a means of wrestling control over today—and, in the process, learning something valuable that might prevent the sins of our ancestors from being repeated.
Denoting transitions to new locales with the sight of a clapperboard being struck, depicting literal pages from Haffner’s book, and throwing certain key phrases onto the screen in giant blaring text, The Meaning of Hitler is a fundamentally self-conscious endeavor. Such an approach gives it the feel of a personal investigation, and that impression grows as it segues gracefully between various points of interest. A montage of famous movie portrayals of the dictator, for example, bolsters Epperlein’s thoughts about the way in which we’re instinctively drawn to Hitler’s personality, which then leads to novelist Francine Prose’s commentary on the most famous Nazi film of all-time: Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a work of “performance art” that she says is marked by “glorious pageantry” that, once you know its context, “makes your flesh creep.” Those opinions, in turn, relate directly to author and professor Saul Friedländer’s belief that, “The Nazis had a feeling that they were acting in some huge historical play for the future, for history. And then people will remember this for the next centuries and centuries. That’s the Wagnerian sense of him.”
Though Third Reich monuments were destroyed after the war, Epperlein notes that their images remain, each a spellbinding tribute to their fascistic ethos, which begs the question: is it possible to make a film about Hitler without contributing to “the expansion of the Nazi Cinematic Universe?” The Meaning of Hitler suggests that the answer is yes, via a mixture of inquisitiveness, confrontation, and self-reflection. Speaking with authors, historians and scholars, stopping by Hitler’s childhood home and old haunts (often via POV shots spied through a Mercedes hood ornament), and employing archival footage and new interviews to address Haffner’s ideas about Hitler’s upbringing and famed oratory skills, it indulges in daring formal invention at it analytically searches for a unifying theory about its subject.
The Meaning of Hitler suspects that such an endeavor may be futile, because as professor Deborah Lipstadt succinctly states, it’s impossible to “rationally explain an irrational sentiment.” That’s most true with regard to Hitler’s reasons for wanting to exterminate the Jews. But it pertains, more broadly, to his lethal megalomania, and also to the legions of white supremacists who continue to celebrate him as a great man, and to deny the Holocaust, such as British writer David Irving, who’s seen joining a guided tour of some notable spots from Hitler’s life. Irving is an unrepentant cretin whom a court once officially deemed “a neo-Nazi polemicist.” And he shows his true colors when, while not realizing his microphone is on, he mocks the 900,000 Jews that were murdered at the Treblinka concentration camp as “poor chaps” who perished from exhaustion because they’d never performed manual labor in their life; instead, he says they were only good at “writing receipts.”
While Irving is the most detestable figure featured in The Meaning of Hitler, he hardly dominates the proceedings, as Epperlein and Tucker skillfully vacillate between visiting past atrocities (like the now-erased Sobibor death camp), miring themselves in contemporary neo-Nazi ugliness (including quick clips from the streamed video of the 2019 Halle synagogue shooting massacre), and contemplating the underlying individual and social forces that led to Hitler’s ascension. Those include the technological development of the valve microphone, which one expert contends was vital in helping Hitler forge a powerful, symbiotic connection with his audience—and the fact that Hitler could hear himself through the loudspeakers during these speeches created, in effect, a positive-reinforcement feedback loop. Shrewdly, Epperlein and Tucker associate this phenomenon with Trump and Twitter, thus underscoring how history endlessly repeats itself, albeit in slightly updated forms.
In moments such as those, The Meaning of Hitler proves a chilling inquiry into our present reality, as well as a warning about the fact that, if we’re not vigilant, our future may wind up looking a whole lot like our past.