- Hitler's Face: The Biography of an Image
There is likely no face as widely disseminated, as universally recognized throughout the entire world, and as bitterly scorned as that of Adolf Hitler. How can we explain the uncanny fascination of this countenance, at once distinctly individual and yet peculiarly amorphous? Surely in the postwar decades the allure of Hitler's visage is related to the wish to give a face to evil incarnate; for Hitler has become indistinguishable from the egregious crimes against humanity committed on his orders and in his name. And yet, as Claudia Schmölders convincingly demonstrates, an uncanny seductiveness and almost perverse appeal emanated from Hitler's face long before he came to symbolize the atrocities of the Holocaust. Is this reflex connected with that tension between the mundane and the horrid that Hannah Arendt so felicitously—and frighteningly—termed the "banality of evil"? Was Hitler's face, as some contemporary witnesses claimed, simply a featureless void that invited its viewers to fill it in with random meanings? Or did Hitler's countenance, demeanor, and—perhaps most importantly—voice actually exude that haunting charisma so often attributed to him? Or must, ultimately, the seduction and enthralling fascination of Hitler's image and person be attributed to one of the most successful advertising and media campaigns the world has ever known? These are some of the questions Claudia Schmölders attempts to address in her provocative and illuminating study Hitler's Face.
As Schmölders's subtitle indicates, this work is conceived as the "biography of an image." In this regard it departs from the methodology of traditional biography by concentrating not on the facts and the evidence revealing its subject's life experiences and personal development, but by focusing instead on the images that document—and oftentimes construct—particular phases of that life. In other words, what Schmölders presents is not just [End Page 753] another history of the person Adolf Hitler, but rather a history of his imagistic representation in painting, photograph, and print-media reproduction. In this sense the more common relationship between biographical data and pictorial illustration has been reversed: here it is not the pictures that illustrate the life, but rather the life that, as it were, illustrates the pictures. It is in keeping with this aim that Schmölders assembles and analyzes over fifty depictions of Hitler, ranging in type from the family album snapshot, to propaganda photos in the service of a constructed image, to hagiographic portraits of the political leader, through finally to caricatures of the demagogue. Schmölders's argument is that the history of Hitler's imagistic representation tells a story that supplements in important ways the tales told by more traditional biographers about Hitler's life.
The subtitle of Schmölders's original German text, which was published in 2000, "eine physiognomische Biographie" (a physiognomic biography), says more about the specificity of her project than does the less descriptive English subtitle. For what is unique about Schmölders's take on Hitler iconography is the fact that she embeds it in a wider discursive context that, while not peculiar to Germany alone, experienced an unusual blossoming in German speaking Europe during the years between the First and the Second World Wars. This context is the obsession with physiognomy, the interpretation of human character, faculties, and potential based on readings of external facial features. Reaching back to the immensely popular and widely disseminated writings on physiognomy of the Swiss Pastor Johann Caspar Lavater, published in the final decades of the eighteenth century, this intellectual-historical movement came to a head in the years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, which saw the publication of innumerable works that sought to marry empirical science with physiognomic interpretation. Schmölders is absolutely correct to emphasize the significance of this cultural backdrop as a determining factor for the mystique surrounding images of Hitler's face. Her thesis is that a series of intellectual and cultural...