Michael Atkinson

Hitler, Cineast

Examining the Movies That Fed the Fantasia of the Third Reich

Discussed: The Wolf’s Lair, The Reality of War, Cold Kölsch, Brutal Saga as National Myth, Spectacularly Naive Politics, The Dire Lot of the Proles, Robotrixes, Natives of Skull Island, The Flaming Punchbowl, Roy Disney, Quintessential Narcissists, The Evils of Secular Atheism, Lessons from the Marx Brothers

Adolf Hitler liked to watch movies. During his ascension in the ’30s and then during the war, the first of many terrestrial conflicts to be fully reflected back onto itself from the world’s movie screens, Hitler became a full-fledged cinephile, a man who communicated with the dream-reality he himself was forging across the Eastern Hemisphere through the cinematic apparatus. Amid the almost 7.5 hours of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s grandiloquent yet threadbare experimental documentary Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977), it is pointed out that during the war Hitler never once journeyed to the front, and saw the war only on nightly newsreels in the various Führerhauptquartieres, from the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia to the final Führerbunker, nestled in his private screening rooms, gleaning the “reality” of the war he was orchestrating from movie images. Susan Sontag, writing about the Syberberg, called the resulting historical aggregate of power, atrocity, politics, celluloid, and inherited cinematic ideas “Germany, a Film by Hitler.”

Indeed, Syberberg’s monologue has Hitler declaring himself, at least to himself, “the greatest filmmaker of all time.” You see the poststructuralist sinkhole of reason sitting there, the tar baby of simulacral reflections, but we’re not approaching it just yet. Instead, let’s consider first the simple fact that very few, if any, world leaders visited “the front” at any time during either world war, and that they all watched newsreels and movies regularly; that Joseph Stalin was such an avid moviegoer that he kept the same faithful Kremlin projectionist, Alexander Ganshin, on the job for eighteen years, until the dictator’s death, an achievement in survival under Stalin so remarkable that Ganshin became the subject of a 1991 film by Andrey Konchalovskiy, The Inner Circle; that Mao Zedong became, in his cataract-ridden later years, a huge Bruce Lee enthusiast; that Benito Mussolini loved the notorious Hedy Lamarr debut Extase (1933) so much he reputedly owned his own print; that FDR watched three movies a week, corresponded with Myrna Loy, and personally converted an East Wing room in the White House into a screening room. And, of course, Woodrow Wilson, leading up to America’s entry into World War I, was sufficiently impressed by Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) to have pronounced that it was “like writing history with lightning,” a statement that (if true) suggests a warped relationship between power and cinema, between realpolitik and the edifice of simulacra, that staggers the imagination and darkens the heart.

The viral sorcery of cinema is such that it took almost no time at all for the new medium to change its viewers, to electrify their expectations and their attention spans, to mythify violence and beauty into visibly superhuman quantities, to mass-legitimate vicarious “excitement” as a cultural axiom, to define war and history and human business as a distant spectacle to be watched for entertainment, and so on. The invention of indoor plumbing altered our relationship with shit; the invention of the automobile changed our ideas of space and travel and landscape; embalming technology and the funerary industries have forever sundered our intimacy with death. But it’s arguable that nothing has shifted our essential perspectives—toward spectatorship and away from autonomy and responsibility—as much as movies have. The twentieth century brought many upheavals, but the conversion of the majority of the human race into habitual and willing passive observers, which we most certainly were not for many centuries prior, may be the most radical shift our consciousnesses have undergone.

The irony in the image is indelible: the world leader idly entranced by Hollywood’s silvery prevarications while at that very moment an army of men are killing and dying at that leader’s behest, in a war zone far away. But Hitler is of course a separate matter, a deathless ghost in modernity’s machine, a demiurge of recent history that we’d prefer not to imagine enjoying a steak or playing with a dog or calmly watching a movie, maybe with a cold Kölsch and fresh popcorn. In fact, he is by now more concept than man, more representation than fact; the aggregation of “Hitler” totals up to far more than the 175 pounds of flesh and bone, the 20,450 days lived, or the current of thoughts and language that emanated from his mouth and pen. But he was in fact just one medium-size, big-mouthed man with tastes and neuroses and talents, and the socio-cognitive dissonance between Hitler and “Hitler” can be scanned as a kind of Hollywoodization, a hologrammatic dream-state between “reality” and its expansion into the four dimensions of pure imagery, empathic desire, mythopoeia, and stereotyping.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Michael Atkinson is the author of seven books, most recently the novels Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat, from St. Martin’s Press. He writes about movies for the Village Voice, Sight & Sound, Sundance Now, In These Times, and Moving Image Source.

Producer Günther Stapenhorst shows a film to Hitler and Goebbels, January 4, 1935
Courtesy of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv

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