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What's behind this ugly Hitler-fest?

November 23, 2002|Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt

Move over Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. Judging by the article in last Sunday's Calendar ("The many faces of Hitler," by Elaine Dutka), the new look features brown eyes, brown hair -- and a brown uniform.

When Broadway producer/hustler/gigolo Max Bialystock faced financial ruin in Mel Brooks' "The Producers," he realized that only one kind of entertainment could save him: a lavish musical with dancing girls dressed in SS uniforms to set the stage for the hero, Adolf Hitler.

Hollywood's fortunes have declined since Sept. 11, but the latest news from screen city shows that deep-pocketed producers have unexpectedly reached Bialystock's pathetic situation. They now follow his example to raise their sagging fortunes.

Lions Gate is releasing "Max," a movie that explores Hitler's early life in Vienna as an aspiring artist and his fictional relationship with an equally fictional Jewish art dealer. The rejected artist syndrome.

CBS is developing a four-hour miniseries based on Ian Kershaw's book, which will follow the Fuhrer's youth and subsequent rise to power as leader of the Third Reich. Kershaw's important work takes two volumes and nearly 2,000 pages to analyze Hitler's social, political and intellectual life, and the murderous violence to which he dedicated that life. Not so the CBS drama. It will show the misery Hitler endured at the hands of his father. The abused child syndrome. Poor Hitler. Poor Germany.

These are but two of a crop of disturbing new movies that attempt to exploit the media-genic Fuhrer. To Max Bialystock's credit, he assumed that he could make off with his investors' money because a Hitler musical would flop the first day: No one would wish to see it. Not so his successors. They expect these productions to succeed. And so they will spend millions on advertising that will bring the face of the Fuhrer to our billboards and, through TV commercials and movie trailers, to audiences everywhere.

In the 1960s, a young and energetic British writer named David Irving believed that the time had come to make a case for Hitler. Irving argued that in the court of history, Hitler had had too many prosecutors, and no serious defender. So he tracked down people who remembered "the other Hitler," and found Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, who taught him to see the war through Hitler's eyes, to champion his perspective.

The result was "Hitler's War" (1977). In it, Irving argued that the Holocaust had been enacted by "criminal elements" behind Hitler's back and without his knowledge or approval. According to Irving, "Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in the Third Reich." The puppet tyrant syndrome. Poor, misunderstood Hitler.

As the announcements from the movie industry show, those who shape popular culture are at the crossroads Irving reached in the 1970s. Indeed, the same Traudl Junge who inspired Irving now inspires Austrian director Andre Heller's new film, "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary."

These filmmakers chose Hitler as their subject because of the mass murders he plotted and produced. In their productions, however, they -- like Irving -- focus on poor, misunderstood Hitler. And they willfully ignore his atrocities. These are dangerous seeds indeed. They can bear but one fruit: denial.

Shifting the focus to Hitler as the abused child, or Hitler as the rejected aspiring artist, horribly distorts a history of evil and terror. Now the story is about the personal pain Hitler endured and not about the murder he unleashed across a continent.

In the case of Irving, a British High Court judge decided in 2000 that his career from Hitler apologist to Holocaust denier had been shaped by profound anti-Semitism.

It is unfathomable that these new Hollywood productions would also be shaped by profound anti-Semitism. So the question we now face is, do they merely pander to a culture that will do what audiences never did before: embrace a picture of Hitler in which the Holocaust has been airbrushed away?

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Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt are authors of the newly released "Holocaust: A History" (W.W. Norton).

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