Hitler—Films from Germany: History, Cinema and Politics since 1945 ed. by Karolin Machtans, Martin A. Ruehl (review)
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Hitler—Films from Germany: History, Cinema and Politics since 1945.
Edited by Karolin Machtans and Martin A. Ruehl. New York: Palgrave, 2012. 251pages + many b/w images. $85.00.

The collection at hand is the first to offer a sustained examination of Hitler’s persistent presence in German media productions from the postwar years to the present. Comprised of ten essays by leading scholars of German film and richly illustrated with [End Page 729] screenshots from films and television productions, the volume takes as its basic premise that “Germany’s historical myths and memories have been shaped and mediated, to a great extent, by the moving image” (7–8). In their comprehensive introduction, the editors survey past and present German media landscapes, with a particular focus on the Hitler “waves” in cinema, documentary films, and television in the 1970s and 1990s, persuasively arguing for the need to critically examine the resurgence of Hitler images in German media productions of the past 15 years within “the cultural context of Germany’s attempts at Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (7–8). They postulate that the recurring fascination with Hitler may be indicative of changed attitudes toward his persona, in particular, with regard to “earlier German taboos” about his “representability” (4). The individual contributions not only develop and support this hypothesis, but also demonstrate that these “changed attitudes” are marked by tensions and contradictions that suggest Germany’s continued struggle to negotiate its relationship to the Nazi past in a reunified nation.

In the opening chapter of the first section, Eric Santner reminds us that any attempt at understanding the continued fascination with Hitler needs to take into account the fundamental role of media in the constitution and self-representation of Hitler as the people’s Führer. Santner emphasizes that those who contend that representations of Hitler have become more “dehistoricized” since the post-war years forget that Hitler has come to us from the very beginning only as a carefully mediated image. Yet despite the fact that “Hitler” is largely a simulacrum, German viewers’ relationship to his persona remains ambivalent, marked by the desire to find the ‘true’ Hitler. For Santner, the infamous forgery of the Hitler diaries, as thematized in Helmut Dietl’s film Schtonk! (1993), aptly captures this ambivalence and as such “demonstrates the continuing appeal of Hitler’s Reich of fakery for our contemporary society of spectacle” (51).

Examining the legacy of G.W. Pabst’s The Last Ten Days (1955), Michael Töteberg investigates a film which briefly came into focus upon the release of Downfall but otherwise, as he notes, “appears to have made no mark on German cultural memory” (56). The author examines the reason for this absence and its negative reception by German audiences while reconstructing the context of its production, including the script written by Erich Maria Remarque, the dramaturgical conception of the film, and its reception in the press, arguing that the film’s lack of resonance in the German public sphere reflected the ongoing repression of the Nazi past in German consciousness and showed that “contemporary witnesses of the Third Reich” could not yet critically process a cinematic re-confrontation with Hitler (58).

Thomas Elsaesser assesses the legacy of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s film Our Hitler (1978) by highlighting its heterogeneous, complex and not necessarily coherent representations of Hitler and exploring the ways in which the film stages the intersections of Hitler and cinema. Focusing on the interplay of “projection and identification,” Elsaesser observes that, on the one hand, Hitler takes on the role of both historical “subject” and “mirror and projection screen” through which the film critically reflects on the complex German visual fascination with, and psychic investment in, the Führer figure. On the other hand, the film also posits a link between Hitler and Hollywood, and as such works towards a critique of “Western capitalism and its ‘society of the spectacle’” (92–93). [End Page 730]

The contributions that comprise the second section of the collection focus on two recent, generically different productions, namely Oliver Hirschbiegel’s melodrama Downfall (2004) and Dani Levy’s farce The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler (2007). Sabine Hake takes...