In the new documentary The Meaning of Hitler, opening this week, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein explore the legacy of Nazism and the ways in which it continues to manifest in the present day. Through interviews with historians, authors, and activists, their picture looks at the cult around Hitler, as well as what that period has to say about the darker side of human nature. It’s an interesting journey for the husband-and-wife filmmaking team, who initially burst onto the scene in 2005 with their documentary Gunner Palace, a striking ground-level portrait of a group of American soldiers in Iraq. Over the years, they have followed a variety of stories growing out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but their fascinating 2017 film, Karl Marx City, took a more personal focus: It was about Epperlein looking into the history of East Germany and her own family’s experience, including the possibility that her father might have worked for the Stasi, the East German secret police. As they explain, The Meaning of Hitler actually grew partly out of experiences they had while making that film. Indeed, it has unsettling connections with much of their work.
Tell me about the origins of The Meaning of Hitler.
Petra Epperlein: Many years ago, I read this book, The Meaning of Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, a German historian who lived during Hitler’s time. He immigrated to Great Britain because he was opposed to Hitler, and his book stands apart from all the other many Hitler biographies and whatever, because he doesn’t look at Hitler as a character — only at what Hitler did. When Trump was elected, we saw many parallels — let’s put it that way — and decided to tackle the subject matter based on that book.
Michael Tucker: Around the time when we were filming our last film, Karl Marx City, we were in Dresden, which is in East Germany, and that was the heart of this anti-immigration movement called Pegida. Every Monday night they would have what they called a walk through central Dresden, which is of course this ornate, pretty magnificent city with all this history. They would have these walks, and these walks grew to be like 30,000 people. At first, it was sort of like boomers out there, unhappy about immigration policy, and then pretty soon the more extreme right came in there, and then they sort of mixed together. Part of that is in The Meaning of Hitler. We’re filming, and at one point, the crowd turns to us and they’re chanting “lying press.” And this wasn’t just like, “Hahaha, lying press.” It was like, “Lying press, we’re going to kill you. You’re lying pigs.” And soon after that, journalists were being beaten.
P.E.: This language was directly borrowed from Nazi language from the ’30s, so that was the parallel. Yeah, this was very unsettling. Because also you know when ’89 happened, the Berlin Wall came down, the “End of History” was declared, and here we are 30 years later and it’s everything but the end of history. All these fascist Nazi movements all over the world are raising up again.
M.T.: The interest actually came from that, which was pre-Trump, but then of course you had that, Brexit, all of these extreme anti-immigration sentiments in Western Europe. Then, going further east, these extreme nationalist movements growing. I would say that Trump’s success is largely from borrowing from the playbooks of what made these movements successful. It’s very global, and the film ended up being a response to that. It’s not just one thing. It’s not: Trump is Hitler. It’s: This thing exists within us, this dangerous energy.
When you approached people and told them you’re making a movie about Hitler, what was their response?
M.T.: I think historians are cautious, because there are these rules about invoking Hitler in comparison to anything. But they also understand history as a work in progress. Many of these historians are very, very old. By the benefit of their experience, seeing these waves of how we understand this history, this isn’t the first time they’ve gone through this. Now is maybe the pinnacle of perceived danger. So, you meet these people that you could say are obsessed with the subject matter, but it’s sort of an endless subject, because that’s really at the heart of who we are — understanding what this energy is that makes that possible. And of course, Yehuda Bauer, the Israeli historian, he nails it so well in talking about that part of human nature, where we’re in denial of it. It’s not really about Hitler. It’s about humans.
P.E.: The younger people that we talked to, there was a different urgency to their response to the uprising of these movements, because obviously they didn’t live through it for 90 years, and didn’t experience it a few times. But people always wanted to talk to us about it. Nobody said, “Oh, we’ve talked about Hitler so many times. Let’s move on.”
We often say that education is so important in this case. In Germany, how has teaching about the Nazi regime changed over the years?
P.E.: I grew up in the East, where all of that was taught differently than in the West. That’s a fact of life, because our country was basically occupied by the Soviet Union, and they had a particular way of communicating about history. So I would say everyone knows about what happened. It’s being taught in schools from a really early age. And that is the official doctrine, of how we have to deal with the Holocaust and our responsibility as Germans, as a German state. But then at the same time, you have many people who think that it’s time to move on. They really believe, “Okay, we’ve done that. It’s a long time ago. Let’s just move on. Let’s not talk about it anymore.” And of course, that’s very, very dangerous when this happens. Also, a pretty large percentage of society are just anti-Semites. I mean, there is no explanation for that. They hate pretty much everything that’s different than themselves. I’m glad that the official doctrine is to teach the Holocaust forever, basically, and that you have to come to terms with the past. But how much of this is actually happening within the population, it’s difficult to really see. That’s why we have these movements. We can’t be so surprised that all of this hatred and anti-Semitism comes up again even though we did all these things. We taught it everywhere.
It was shocking and saddening to see a British Holocaust denier, David Irving, whom you feature in the film. Over the course of making the movie, did you come across anybody who said, “Don’t talk about this stuff. Don’t give this stuff any more oxygen. All you’ll end up doing is making the David Irvings of the world even more famous than they are”?
P.E.: No. We discussed this ourselves extensively, if we should do that or not. How far and how much of that should be actually included into the film.
M.T.: That’s one reason why, for instance, we didn’t embed with any neo-Nazi groups or any of these “identity movements” in Europe. We’ve met these people. We’ve talked to them. All these opportunities were open. It was like, why feed that more? But Irving was a particular interesting case. He’s constantly talking about history and “real history,” and “we just want to know the truth” and all these things … but then we saw what we brought back from Treblinka. [The film features live-mic footage of David Irving making anti-Semitic jokes and epithets during a tour of the Treblinka death camp, thinking the filmmakers can’t see or hear him.] What you see is that it’s actually about cruelty. Anti-Semitism. It’s the cruelty in the words. It’s about re-inflicting this pain over, and over, and over again. And that’s that ugly face that you see. It gets beyond what you see on the book jacket and into who really is this person and who are these people who follow him. I think people need to understand that, and it was more shocking to us to see, talking about education, kids today … anti-Semitism is masked with all this irony. It’s like, “Ahaha. It’s funny. It’s the funny Nazi,” or whatever. And they eventually sort of become victimized when they’re policed, and they become radicalized, and that’s what you’re seeing: Perfectly normal gamer kids going into this weird space. Previously, this was all foreign to them, and then it becomes this gospel. And that’s terrifying.
P.E.: And going back to education. It’s still important because at least they have heard, going into these spaces or being exposed to the ironic Hitler or the ironic anti-Semitism. If they have never heard about that before, that’s their first contact with that world. If you don’t know anything about it, it’s so much easier to be drawn into the deep hole of fascism and Nazism. But if you have some sort of context that you know at least what it is, then maybe you can resist it, hopefully.
As you mentioned, there’s a scene in your film where one of these protesters comes up to your camera and asks, angrily, “Which member of the lying press are you?” Were there times during the making of this film that you feared for your lives?
P.E.: We didn’t fear for our lives, but it was very, very hostile. I never experienced that before. Thirty thousand people at these marches. They were at night, and they were carrying torches, so that in itself already has an eerie presence, and then when they march by and you’re just standing there innocently holding your microphone and your camera, and then they turn at you and they yell at you. And they really did beat up people, just yesterday.
M.T.: Yesterday! Yesterday, the head of the German journalist union was pulled off his bicycle by COVID deniers, who are also mixed in with Nazi thugs. There were running battles throughout Berlin. We weren’t scared then, but when you look back on [what happened] yesterday … What did it feel like to be in the ’30s? Maybe some people still think that sounds hysterical, but these things are happening. They’re happening everywhere.
P.E.: So when you think about the ’30s in Berlin … There were the Nazis, and the communists, and they had these battles. This was enormously violent, day after day, night after night. You think about it. These hordes of people have a violent energy about them.
M.T.: I would say that Poland also felt a little bit scary. Some Polish nationals are sort of outraged by those scenes in the film. They say, “Oh, these are patriotic demonstrations celebrating our independence.” I mean, we were there. There were fascist flags. Fascists from around Europe came there and marched under these banners.
It’s interesting to think about the overall journey you guys have had as filmmakers. Petra is German. You made this film partly because of some of the footage you shot for Karl Marx City. And Karl Marx City was partly inspired by debates at the time around NSA spying in the U.S. And you had started your feature documentary career with Gunner Palace, about American soldiers in Iraq. Your subsequent films all grew out of those experiences — you pursued variations on the subject of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through five very different movies, which then led you to making movies about Europe, and back to Germany — to the Stasi, and now to Hitler. It’s a disturbing homecoming, of sorts.
M.T.: It’s highly ironic that when we started doing all our stuff in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were here in Berlin. We have a daughter together, and we were living here, and I was driving into Baghdad, also flying back and forth to Germany. But here, all these years later, this weird circle … Now we’re sort of in a self-imposed exile here in Berlin, regrouped as a family. This 20 years has been absolutely insane. There’s a thread from 9/11 to Iraq, to our current moment, this whole militarization of society. There’s all of these things sort of bubbling under the surface in America that all go back to that. Where does that start? It’s absolutely fascinating.
We’ve been looking at footage of Gunner Palace because we’re going to be going back into that material soon for something new that we just shot, and it’s incredible. I was going in with these breach teams into houses, and the women and the children are screaming and we were stacking people up in the back of Humvees like cord wood. It’s pretty chilling to then see what happened last spring during George Floyd and to see this absolute militarization and this same brutality.
You end The Meaning of Hitler with COVID, which I thought was an interesting choice.
M.T.: COVID at that moment, especially being in the New York area and really being touched by that … I remember when we filmed those final scenes. We were coming from the West Side Highway, turned onto a street. We drove down, turned the corner into Times Square, and — this actually makes me emotional — it was empty. I think I audibly gasped on camera like, “Oh, my God.” In the Haffner book, there’s really this idea of a catastrophe that’s willfully brought upon the country, and it was that same sort of feeling, but also sort of a sense of betrayal that’s similar. This absolute abandonment of the people, and this carelessness. It’s so reckless. I think Yehuda Bauer, the Israeli historian, says it so well. You’re really left with these two forces, and we’re seeing it still, to this day, which I find incredible. This dark and light. It’s so fundamental how you choose. Are you going to live as a collective and look out for each other, or are you going to serve the politics of the individual — the cult of the individual?