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14 March 2016

Do we really need another drama about Hitler?

A new series being produced in Germany seeks to portray Hitler as a human being, in an attempt to explain an evil that seems inexplicable.

By Judith Vonberg

A comedy about Hitler waking up in modern Germany will debut for English-speaking audiences on Netflix in April. It’s called Look Who’s Back. But for most of us, Hitler never really went away.

Hardly a year goes by without a new, often controversial, feature film or television series about the dictator. Along with Look Who’s Back, 2015 saw the release of Amazon Prime’s hit series The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K Dick’s 1963 novel, and Swedish martial arts comedy Kung Fury featuring Hitler as “Kung Führer”.

“We’ve had enough!” the critics cry. But, in the words of German scriptwriter Niki Stein, “Hitler sells.” He’s working on a new television series, currently in pre-production, called simply Hitler and produced by UFA Fiction and Beta Film.

It was the subject of a recent symposium in the austere surroundings of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Eminent and aspiring historians gathered to debate the role of Hitler in the Holocaust and his on-screen depictions.

I arrived sceptical about the need for another Hitler drama and left a little less so. The eight hour series from the producers of the international audience hit Generation War will tell the story of Hitler from the end of the First World War to 1945. His rise to power is told through the stories of three men – Fritz Wiedemann, Hugo Gutmann and Karl Mayr – whose lives were interwoven with that of the man who turned Europe into rubble.

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Hitler is just one of four protagonists, Stein explained. This enables the writers to show both how Hitler develops – from “dog without a master”, as a friend describes him in the first episode, to autocrat – and the broader political and social contexts of inter-war Germany.

“We want to show how terrible it was, how evil it was,” said Jan Mojto, CEO of Beta Film. “But we want to show that the evil didn’t come from hell, that he was one of us.”

It is a unique approach and was inspired by the book Hitler’s First War, written by renowned historian Thomas Weber who also acts as historical advisor for the series.

“You cannot treat Hitler as if he were born a monster,” he told me. Yet too many dramatisations fall foul of the temptation to do just that. Canadian miniseries Hitler: The Rise of Evil depicts Adolf as a child, unsmiling and cold-hearted, not unlike the young Tom Riddle in the Harry Potter films. He is already evil, irrepressibly so, the series implies.

Other dramas like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall do the opposite, depicting the Hitler we all know he became without answering the question that drives historians and filmmakers around the world: How? How did Hitler become Hitler?

“Only when we take Hitler seriously,” writes Weber, “his self-discovery, his personal talents and weaknesses, his cold cruelty, and his personal charm, his career, and the development of his social relationships, can we explain Hitler’s and the Germans’ actions.”

In other words, only when we see Hitler as a human being – rather than a monster, an idiot or a one-dimensional psychopath – can we begin to satisfy our desire to explain what seems so inexplicable.

But such an endeavour is fraught with dangers, as the creators of the series are well aware. “I want to make this very clear,” said producer Benjamin Benedict. “We are trying to explain where Hitler came from. This in no way means justifying or relativising his actions.”

Nor do they want their audience to identify with this very human Hitler. Hence the multiple perspectives, which expose the terrible impact of his decisions on the lives of the Germans around him.

This broader view also enables parallels with today’s Europe. We are shown a country in political and social upheaval and a man whose desire for power overrides everything. It is naïve to imagine that such a story has no relevance for us.

But some Germans are still uncomfortable with the topic. “They like to treat Hitler as an illness that just came over them,” Stein said. “They’re fearful to get too close and don’t want to know how it came about.”

It seems that we really do need a new drama about Hitler – and it’s the one currently being made in Germany. “We need to show that democracy is not unbreakable,” argued Stein. “We need to show how one man went from stray dog to dictator. This is the biggest story you can tell.”

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