Since Hitler’s death more than 70 years ago, countless books and television documentaries have attempted to shed light on the life of the man from Braunau in Upper Austria and to make sense of the Adolf Hitler “phenomenon”. This film, however, tells Hitler’s life story as it has never before been told: In WER WAR HITLER, except for a few, brief comments by a narrator, only contemporaries and Hitler himself have their say. Accounts taken from diaries, letters, speeches and autobiographies have been combined with new and often previously unpublished archive material. Only original film footage is used – including a significant amount of amateur footage, often in colour – and some photographs. There are no interviews, no reconstructions, no special effects, and no technical gimmicks. As a result, Hitler’s life is reflected uniquely against the backdrop of the society between 1889 and 1945. A documentary for cinema that breaks new ground in the cinematic portrayal of contemporary history.
Astonishingly, only two documentary films about Adolf Hitler have ever been made for the big screen. And the last one - "Hitler - Eine Karriere" by Joachim Fest - dates back to 1977. Four decades after Fest's film, WER WAR HITLER, by Hermann Pölking offers a new and modern cinematographic approach. By placing Hitler’s life and work against the social backdrop of the first half of the 20th century, WER WAR HITLER does not explain; it offers the audience information and ideas from which they can draw their own conclusions. Drawing upon Hitler’s interaction and resonance with both German and Austrian society as well as national and international political movements and events between 1895 and 1945, the film documents the life of Adolf Hitler in 17 chapters and a prologue – for the most part chronologically.
Hitler and the period of National Socialism have been the topics of scores of television documentaries in Germany, and they have covered every imaginable aspect of this time. The chance to make a film for cinema that is not tied to the constraints of television formatting offers new ways to explore the subject at hand.
WER WAR HITLER differs from previous productions in two particular ways: the selection of sources and the narrative style. In documentaries, contemporary witnesses or supposedly all-knowing experts usually evaluate and explain archive material. WER WAR HITLER includes no such interviews or statements. The informative narration is kept to a minimum; it is used only in a few selected scenes to provide essential background facts. The film is otherwise limited to original quotes, speeches and texts (diaries, letters, contemporary journalism and memoirs) by Hitler and his immediate contemporaries. In other words, only the historical protagonists are given a voice; nobody is looking retrospectively into the past. The result is a film that offers the audience an insight into the time back then, but a film that does not comment, so that viewers might “work it out” for themselves.
It is no mistake that the film does not offer a ready-made idea or message. Watching the film, it becomes clear what shaped and moved Hitler, his follower and voters – and also his opponents.
The film includes comments from ordinary people from all over the world as well as representatives of the elites, statesmen and military men, National Socialists, Conservatives, Christian Democrats, Liberals, Social Democrats and Communists - a kaleidoscope of opinions and views from followers, profiteers and accomplices, victims and adversaries.
Archive material selected especially for the film compliments and backs up the various quotes. Most documentaries on National Socialism use the same, well-known footage. From a historical point of view, the use of such material is often problematic, i.e. the image content does not fit (accurately) to the context in which it is placed. Many of the well-known sources - including those of the Allies - also come from newsreels or similar programmes - programmes which were produced as propaganda, and as such had the particular function of controlling or manipulating the viewer. However, the situation surrounding source material has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, a multitude of material is available from private and non-governmental sources – a significant proportion of which is even in colour. By using these archive films, it is possible to gain a more authentic perspective on Hitler and his time.
I was born in 1954. My first visual memory begins in the incredible summer of 1959 when the surface of the fields in my North German hometown became leathery. The radio coverage of the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 is the first historical event I took in. When I recall this echoic memory, I am often also reminded of the voices of my father, uncle and great uncle. During the men’s heated discussions of those years, the name “Hitler” was often thrown into the cigar smoke that filled the room. My father had been a corporal in Hitler's war for seven years. My great uncle Heinrich was a devout Catholic and judicial officer and had wanted Hitler to come to power in 1933 - he went to his grave not being able to forgive himself for wishing this. My uncle Wilfried, still young at the time, studied in West Berlin and was able to tell me, the young seven-year-old, about things in more detail. Several times a year, Rudolf Augstein’s "Spiegel", which I was already reading at the age of twelve, provided cover stories on the subject. I have been reading and learning about Adolf Hitler for more than 50 years.
I turned 63 this year. After 40 years of reading Central European history from written sources, 18 years of intensive work in the jungle of cinematic archives, and a documentary tour d'horizon through the everyday culture of the past century, I began to feel like I should make a film that answers the question "Who was Hitler?"
When people see and hear at the same time, they understand things differently. A play on the stage, a photo accompanying a text, and indeed the moving pictures of television and cinema are all food for the mind’s eye. The mind's eye translates any spoken or written words into pictures already stored in our heads without the need for a real picture. Our intention with WER WAR HITLER was to offer viewers more visual excitement than the iconic images they may already know from television documentaries.
My film first takes the moving image seriously as a source. When it comes to depicting historical events, these sources have different qualities to those of a printed document that has been deemed authentic, or to a witness whose background has been checked for his or her reliability. Unlike paper documents, moving images can rarely be certified because they are easily manipulated through editing. Nevertheless, much like an autobiography or a letter, moving images record a moment in history. When using film material, as is the case with any source, I have to be aware of the technical and subjective manner in which it was made. The perspective of the person behind the camera, those who worked on the film, bits that were left out or not recorded (on purpose or by chance) – much like the author who might tear a page out of his notebook.
Because we wanted WER WAR HITLER to be anti-iconographic, the film needs as many previously unseen sources as possible. We deliberately wanted to avoid "learned effects". During the research phase for WER WAR HITLER, efforts were made - the likes of which had been unheard of for film and TV documentaries - to get our hands on film material. No corners were cut, and no production costs were too high. After all, in our film, the archive is the “cameraman”. I checked all of the sources myself and did not forget a single moving picture.
I have read up on autobiographical testimonies by contemporaries, including sources from the time like reports, transcripts of speeches and conversations, letters, memos and diaries. I had to take a step back while evaluating the memoirs: people make excuses for their actions, hundreds of autobiographies, written in hindsight after history had taken its course, filled with lies – white lies and big lies.
All of this was done, of course, with academic research and findings on the subject taken entirely into account. Hitler has been researched and written about a lot. I have worked through the literature, reflected on the controversies of the past and present that surround the topic, and gone to great lengths to check the facts.
More than 120 speakers lend their voices to the written testimonies of their contemporaries. Snippets of information about time and location help viewers keep a sense of chronology and place the events they see on screen with the knowledge they bring to the cinema with them. Very infrequently, there is also a narrator, but the comments made serve merely to inform; they do not evaluate. I otherwise have faith in the ability of my audience to draw conclusions, as well as in their emotion and empathy for the suffering seen in history. Walter Kempowski's "Echolot", which may not have been given a great deal of media attention, was especially important to me here; Ken Burn's method of storytelling was another inspiration to me. I often use a picture-text montage, which is denounced by many documentary purists as "text-image-cut". But in my film, sound and image are brought together. Image and text always have something to do with each other, albeit on different levels. I want to pair sound and image for maximum effect, sort of like cross-cutting. Such techniques sometimes awaken something in the view or the listener - something they can associate with what they are seeing or hearing. They can also be used to bridge a gap in footage.
WER WAR HITLER is deliberately purist. About 95% of the film consists of moving pictures and about 5% of photographs; no blending, only hard cuts, no special effects that are so common in modern cinema; and no modern film sequences, no interviews or animations. Technically, WER WAR HITLER is state of the art. All of the film sources were carefully evaluated before making it to the editing room. We stabilised, restored and adjusted the colours for the big screen. The film sources were originally almost silent, the historical moment in which they were shot was not. We tried hard to make the sound of the time sound natural without using any audio effects. Music is used sparingly but effectively; it should not create a wall of sound, more of a feeling of claustrophobia.
WER WAR HITLER is a cinematic event; it offers everything you might expect from a trip to the cinema: the good and the bad, peaks and troughs, scenes of the masses and scenes of the individual. It is the story of the first half of the 20th century - a time that saw the greatest wars, the greatest crimes, and the most incredible explosion of human creativity. A time that saw heroism akin to Achilles, guile akin to Odysseus, cunningness akin to Hagen the warrior – and a person called Adolf Hitler.
There are countless television documentaries about Hitler. Nevertheless, we committed ourselves to producing another that is probably the most comprehensive Hitler film. Why? Unfortunately, the events unfolding around the world prove that this topic is more relevant than ever.
We are living in times when populism is spreading all around us, in which nationalistic aspirations are rampant, and in which there is open hostility towards minorities. Nonconformists are silenced, and a differentiated and independent public media are discredited as “fake news”. This has all been seen in history, especially in the period of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. The events of that time are a terrifying blueprint of what is going on at the moment. Have we learned nothing from our recent history?
Much of what we see happening in today’s society was used by Hitler to brew his poisonous cocktail of politics. Politicians who intentionally target and speak to those deemed to be disadvantaged – the so-called “left behind”; a general feeling of repulsion towards the elite, which turns into hate and discrimination aimed at minority groups; alleged “evil” powers abroad, and even at home, that are working against the nation; the annexation of foreign territories to supposedly stop the oppression of minorities there who want to be reunited with their homeland; as well as efforts to prevent freedom of speech, which sometimes even resort to violence.
Repeating a web of bold and outright lies creates a climate of hate that is completely detached from rational argument. False and misleading claims aim only to speak to people’s emotions. As was the case under National Socialism, facts no longer matter, they are simply denied if necessary. A sense of hollowness among the people takes the place of truth and enlightenment and becomes the sole motivation in moving forward, as well as the justification for people’s actions. And, if this fails to pave the road to success, violence will be used where it is necessary, critics will be suppressed or killed and ultimately merely banned – as we currently see in Poland, Russian and Turkey, for example. Democracy and the rule of law are no longer unbreakable values, let alone the freedom of and consideration for minorities. Do the followers of Putin, Erdogan, Trump, Kaczynski or even Wilders, Le Pen, Hocke and Petry, to name but a few examples, not see the parallels? Do they have their eyes closed? Or is this what they want?
Another common characteristic is the way in which these demagogues engineer themselves: the strong heroes who have come to save the people, the only ones interested in the future – who therefore demand (and are often granted) absolute power. For this reason, the film WER WAR HITLER shows how the Nazis purposefully created a cult of persona around Adolf Hitler and how this led to the people of Germany following him with such compliance, whatever he did. Hitler was certainly not the first to use such methods, but with Hitler, it is clear to see where his actions led.
In WER WAR HITLER, representatives from the powerful German workers’ movement that emerged after the First World War give their views. So, too, do the intelligentsia (left) of the Weimar years, leading politicians and economists of the time, as well as the press and the media. The sobering insight with which they comment on and analyse the developments of the time may well (justifiably) lead viewers to ask just how the rise of Hitler and National Socialism was possible. Willy Brandt, who was at high school in Lübeck during the years of the Weimar Republic, criticised the then SPD by saying: “You didn’t have to be on the left to consider the SPD foolish or to see that many young people ran after the brown rat catchers because they were on a road to nowhere.” This must lead us to ask ourselves today if we are losing control of democracy due to egoism, bureaucracy, sectarianism and even recklessness, just as the case was in the years leading up to 1933.
Let’s not let it happen again almost 100 years later. Lauenburg, June 2017
Mr. Pölking, why another documentary about Adolf Hitler?
Productions are made and broadcast about National Socialism all over the world because a large group of people want to see them. However, with WER WAR HITLER, we have not made “TV”. We have produced a documentary for the cinema. And, as far as we know, there have only been two since Hitler’s death. In 1942: “Mein Kampf” (Sweden/Germany) by Erwin Leiser in 1960 and “Hitler – Eine Karriere” by Joachim Fest and Christian Herrendoerfer in 1977. So, after 40 years, there is another factual film about Adolf Hitler to be screened in cinemas.
But is cinema the right place for historical documentation? Many critically acclaimed documentaries don’t find their audience in the cinema.
I assumed that Joachim Fest's film was from the 80s and it surprised me when I found out it was from 1977. Since then, there have been no documentaries for the cinema. Of course, you can watch everything on TV today. This film will also be on TV. But you perceive a film in the cinema, a full-length film, differently - even later in front of the screen. In the cinema, you have to get involved in the topic. This allows for a different, certainly a more demanding dramaturgy. We are bringing history to the cinema for those who are interested in it!
Is that why your film WER WAR HITLER isn’t exactly short? There are going to be two versions. The "short" version is just over three hours long, the long version is 7 ½ hours long.
We had a look around during the early planning phase. In 1960, Erwin Leiser needed 2 hours and 2 minutes to talk about Hitler in his film "Mein Kampf". Joachim's 1977 film is 2 hours and 30 minutes long. In their day and age, both of these were unusually long films. Golo Mann once wrote: "In our times, no one makes world history anymore. Hitler was the last to do it for a brief moment." Hitler lived to the age of 56. In these years, he determined German history for 23 and world history for twelve. There are a lot of important things to say about this time. We also now have the film footage. The amount of footage available has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. Most significantly, the use of amateur films has opened up new possibilities. Television, with is explanatory tone which interprets sources, has not responded adequately to this.
So, you don’t interpret?
I want to avoid that. In my films, I try to take film footage seriously as a historical source. You do, of course, have to know a lot of things about the footage. Who shot the film and why? Is it an amateur film? If I am watching a documentary or an educational film, is the copy I have raw footage or an edited version? Were there different versions of a film? Whether or not the film I am working with had been edited or is a simple documentation of an event makes a big difference.
So, you are telling a story from the sources?
That’s what I do in most of my films. With WER WAR HITLER, with two or three exceptions, we don’t give a lot of background information about the film sources. Neither do we provide technical information – whether or not the films are 8 mm, 9.5 mm Pathe, 16mm or 35mm, for example. This film is an example of my work in which I don’t mix sources in scenes to create what my editor and I call “icons”. Each statement and each episode uses only one film source. We stuck to this in WER WAR HITLER.
So, you don’t tell us what or where we are seeing in each scene. What do you tell the audience?
In this film, 90% of the work I do is with quotes from contemporary observers. We check their accounts with the film material we have, and, on many occasions, they match up. And so, the film shows what observers said or noted in their quotes or statements. Or the text that goes along with the image creates something I call an “image-text parallelism”. The film shows something that was indeed going on at the same time but in a different place - this is often the case. We see, for example, an upper-class woman and her seven blond children, filmed by her husband, on holiday on the island of Wolin in Pomerania in 1941. At the same time, we hear the words “Is this a human? This quote by Primo Levi refers to a Jewish mother as she cares for her children as they are taken to Auschwitz. We also use the “image-text parallelism” to make 180-degree contrasts. Quotes about the Hitler-Ludendorff-Putsch in 1923, for example, can be heard as images are shown of a Bavarian beer garden, complete with brass band people dancing the Schuhplattler in 1931. In English-speaking countries, the Hitler-Ludendorff-Putsch is more commonly referred to as the Beer Hall Putsch. We bring Bavarian tradition face to face with Bavarian revolution.
What was your plan in terms of content?
Since around 2007, I knew about Stefen Aust and Micheal Kloft’s (both of whom work for Spiegel TV) plans to make a Hitler documentary for the big screen. At that time, I had already supplied some film sources I had found in the Saeculum Archive. I now work with Karl Höffkes, and he had known about these plans for a long time. While ever Spiegel was planning such a film, it was not something we thought about going near. And furthermore, I wasn’t that interested in the topic at that time. I’d wondered for a long time if “Hitler” had already been overdone – so much already said about him. It was during a trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 2014 that I, Thorsten Pollfuß and Karl Höffkes came up with the idea of making a cinema documentary about Hitler. It was clear by then that Aust and Kloft were not going to make a film anytime soon. I also saw making a documentary film for cinema as a chance to work with a big budget to create a film based on my own ideas and without the restrictions that come with making documentaries for television. Back then, the opinion magazine, The European, had published an edition in which Hitler was referred to as “Germany’s only global brand”. It didn’t show much pity to Hitler’s victims, but it was correct.
What is your narrative style?
I thought “Hitler” as a subject matter would be an excellent example to help realise my ideas of creating a new and systematic way to narrate history. When it came to telling the story, I wanted the film to be pure regarding footage and composition. Just like the early days of cinema: only hard cuts, no blending, no special effects that would look dated after a few years, no interviews, no reconstructions, and no explanatory graphics. A purist documentary film.
After publishing a lengthy book some four years earlier, Joachim Fest brought Hitler to the cinema in 1977.
It was clear to me from the start that I was following in big footsteps. I read more than 800 books for the script. I quote from almost 400 books in the film. And I will add that some of the books were more than a thousand pages long. Thankfully, I’m a fast reader. My first step was to read the majority of Hitler biographies already published – in German and in English. I then turned to books that dealt with specific times in Hitler’s life. Next, I began looking at diaries, letters, documents and autobiographies written by people who were alive back then. When it came to choosing the quotes, I always had to weigh up the quality and the originality of my sources. I then took quotes from these books. I must make it clear that I deliberately only let the people alive at the time have a say; I did not want to use comments by all-knowing historians. I must have digitalised and edited some 14,000 citations.
When it comes to sources and what we know, haven’t things changed completely since 1977?
Definitely. Since the early 90s, even TV producers have been reacting to every new academic finding and every modern interpretation of Hitler's biography. No other subject in history has been researched as intensely as the field that is National Socialism, the Holocaust and the Second World War.
And then you wrote a screenplay?
The first screenplay – well, you couldn't really call it a screenplay because we didn't film anything - was 28 hours long and Thorsten Pollfuß and Karl Höffkes didn’t even read it. At the same time, I probably also viewed thousands of hours of archive films. When choosing the text, I did have films in mind that I wanted to use as well as motives that I had to look for. While I was reading, I also looked for sections that would work well with extracts I was already sure I wanted to use. Nine voice-over artists then read out 18 hours’ worth of quotes. In the first rough cut, I pre-cut 14 hours of voice-overs, chapter by chapter. I started with the four chapters that look at Hitler’s “years of peace” from 1933 to 1939. As far as this period was concerned, I knew we weren’t going to have any problems with the material – the same could not be said for the period from Hitler’s birth in 1889 to 1926, when party members made the first film about their movement. At this point, I began trying to make the number of sources more manageable. This was when I had the idea not just to create a “short” three-hour version, but to create a cinematic event. There were just too many good sources at our disposal not to use them. We then added sound to a roughly nine-hour long version of WER WAR HITLER, the music was composed by musician Julius Holtz, and we began to make and edit the final voice-overs. In the end, 117 people provided voices for about 350 quotes.
Is it possible to tell the same story in three hours and also in over seven hours?
No, it isn't. It is not the "same" story. In the short version, we had to be careful not to edit away part of the truth. It’s well known that a half-truth is the same as a lie. We want to tell the truth in both, just differently.
So, the long version is not a classic "director's cut"?
A director's cut often happens in cinema because the director, producer and distributor disagree about something. It’s the film that the producers and distributors want that ends up in the cinema. The director is then later allowed to release his "redux" version. That isn't how things went for us. There was no conflict between the author and director, producer or distributor. We were looking for a film solution to a substantive problem. I’m going to get bit theoretical now: in Russian formalism from 1910 to 1930, which made the leap from the stage to Soviet film, the words "fabula" and "sjuzhet" were used to talk about the difference between what a story tells, and what else happens. The "fabula" tells what happened in chronological order. This "fabula", the telling of the story, gives the short version of the film its own sense of suspense. The "sjuzhet" is the conscious view of our "implied" dramaturgy, our way of telling the story, and the order in which we do it. With the " sjuzhet Hitler”, which revolves around “Hitler and the Germans”, we really roll out the “Fabula”, especially in the long version.
So, you don’t just scratch the surface, you look at things from a psychological point of view?
We don’t go into psychology in the film, and therefore the film is not speculative. Hitler was a showman – a lot of it all just a façade. We don’t know what was behind that façade. And that doesn’t interest me either. Misshaped people like Hitler with a thirst for power have existed throughout history. Quite simply, people should not have been allowed to vote for him. The German elites should have prevented a man like Hitler from gaining power through lies and dishonesty. If they had been successful in stopping him, this man would not have been able to commit his crimes. Almost a sixth of the film is dedicated to the story of Hitler’s childhood home, his childhood and younger years, his years spent doing not very much in Vienna and Munich, as well as his years as a corporal in the First World War. It becomes clear what could have shaped him. But even here – as in many other parts – we do not speculate. Speculative comments by contemporary witnesses are almost always coupled with opposing quotes. Whether or not Hitler was homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual, or could have sexual intercourse with one testicle, these things didn’t interest us. We were, however, interested in his intellect; was he stupid or intelligent? And, we were naturally interested in what he knew. Those who were regularly around him have since written: “Hitler knew everything”.
So, there’s not a lot of Hitler in private?
No, there's quite a lot. There is a chapter called "Petite Bourgeoise" - it’s is all about the private Hitler. Contemporaries tell of a man who also deceived the public when it came to his private life. He portrayed himself as a modest man, but, in reality, lived large. He was, as we would say nowadays, in a "serious relationship" and hid his partner from the public. He was a Bohemian who went to bed late and rarely got up before 11:00 am and who preferred watching films over reading over official papers.
Why do viewers have to know that?
Hitler was human, not a superhuman, as he liked to style himself. Unfortunately, neither was he a "monster". People who, like him, are perceived as "nice" by those around them can kill and destroy the world with war.
Let's get back to your narrative ...
Except for the prologue and the two chapters " Petite Bourgeoise" and "A Mass Murderer", 15 of the 17 chapters chronologically tell the story of Hitler from his birth to his suicide in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery. That is the "fabula". It's kind of like a double history lesson. In the "sjuzhe", or the longer version, Hitler’s life is put in the context of everyday life in the German Reich and Austria. To achieve this, we turned to Hitler’s biographers who see Hitler as a manifestation and/or reflection of a large proportion of Germany and Austrian society and its structures in the 1920s and 1930s. We call these historians the "functionalists". In their biographical interpretations, the "intentionalists", such as Joachim Fest, Allan Bullock or currently Wolfgang Pyta, see Hitler as a highly charismatic historical protagonist, a seducer and manipulator of the people. We also attribute "charisma" to Hitler, albeit more of an act than real charisma, and I think that is clear to see in the film. Just as Ian Kershaw does in his two-part Hitler biography, we explore both views.
We all know the consequences of Hitler’s politics and how he met his end. How do you create tension?
As long as the storyline is still clear to the viewer, films can take the audience wherever they want. Where there is a shadow, there also has to be light. We have good and evil in our plot. In WER WAR HITLER, it’s obvious who the villain is. In our film, we don’t say who the “good guys” are. We juxtaposed the anti-hero Hitler with a hero. This becomes very clear in the long version. We also use images and text to surprise; amazing photos and quotes from contemporaries that will surprise. Nothing is seen onscreen that isn’t from the period between 1989 and 1945 - the viewer is taken back to the Hitler years for 3 or seven hours.
One last question – the central question: who was Hitler?
An individual with an excellent capacity for autosuggestion from which he drew willpower. He was also a very gifted actor who lied unashamedly – the most dangerous combination there is.
Mr. Pollfuß, why another film about Adolf Hitler?
Granted, there are scores of documentaries about the time of National Socialism on TV. But interest in this period is not waning. It was when I first started at "Spiegel TV" in 2000 that I first thought everything had already been said and nobody wanted to see anything more about Hitler and National Socialism. But I was wrong. Everything we made on the subject gained a lot of attention. When we started to add DVDs to our printed paper, the editions with the Third Reich DVDs were by far the ones that sold the best. This also has to do with the fact that it was the last archetypical crisis for us (Germans). Other countries indeed continued to have their crises, such as the Americans with their losses in the Vietnam war. We didn't make the film for TV but the cinema.
But is cinema the right place for historical documentaries? Many critically acclaimed documentaries don’t find their audience in the cinema.
When the idea for a film started to form, I was surprised at the beginning at how long it had been since documentary films about Hitler had been made. The last one - "Hitler - Eine Karriere" by Joachim Fest - dates back to 1977. That irritated me. Cinema makes it possible to tell a story differently. TV documentaries on the Third Reich usually follow a certain pattern: a long and elaborate voiceover filled with facts and figures that are then verified by one or two eyewitnesses. Finally, this is all confirmed by a couple of experts. Everything is handed to the viewer on a plate – there is no need for the audience to think for itself. Such formatting helps to keep the viewer’s attention – unlike cinema; people often do other things while they are watching the TV. In a cinema, the viewer is much more involved in the film. Besides, cinema has changed dramatically in the last few years. Multiplex cinemas prevail in numbers. Even arthouse cinemas now often have multiple screens. Special interest programmes stand a better chance of finding their audience – whether that be as part of an evening or late-night programme, or as a matinee showing as part of a larger event. Digitalization has also reduced the price per copy of a film for cinema operators. As a result, even the “small” films find their way into cinemas because they are now cheaper. There is also a further trend: alongside the very young, older people are returning to the cinema in ever growing numbers. Older, educated people with higher incomes are particularly interested in history.
Can’t you make WER WAR HITLER any shorter?
The plan was actually for a film with a running time of about 2½ hours, which also corresponds to the length of the film by Joachim Fest. But we quickly realised that that’s hard to do. On the one hand, unlike many other films, we describe Hitler's entire biography, from his birth to his death – using cinematic techniques, most significantly. Hitler's childhood and adolescence, in particular, are comprehensively portrayed with carefully selected and rare sources – it is not just a standalone voiceover with no connection to the rest of the film. This provides a more comprehensive picture overall. Also, our dramaturgy requires the right space. Since we mainly tell the events only with sources from the time, we need time. Thanks to digital film copies for cinemas, the length of a film is no longer so significant when it comes to film rentals and cinemas. Films can now be considerably longer, which leads to a change in the way films tell their stories. Most importantly, Video on Demand services, which are not bound by listings and airing slots, are now producing increasing numbers of longer (and successful) films. There is a definite trend towards longer films.
So, that means you focus on sources from the time?
Unlike typical TV documentaries, narration plays a minor role in this film. Narrations usually convey historians' current findings and are therefore based on a retrospective assessment of the history of the event from today's perspective. In our film, however, we wanted to show how Hitler managed to become what he was. What was life like back then? What did people think about him and his actions at the time? What did they do? What did he do? How did it all happen? 70 years later, with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the time, these questions are often answered well. But this method isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of the way people experienced the past. Therefore, in the film, we use quotes from people who lived alongside Hitler, who describe the events from their point of view. We mainly used letters, diaries, speeches, books and newspaper articles from the period. The viewer sees Hitler's career like a kind of contemporary observer. It's a bit like being immersed in that time.
How does the film differ from conventional Hitler documentaries?
We refrain entirely from using the typical features seen in TV documentaries, such as interviews with contemporary witnesses and experts, new film footage of the historical sites, or reconstructions of events that were not caught on film. The film only uses archive material. Our film is distinctly different from conventional documentaries. We make extensive use of private film recordings. As far as possible, we avoid the classic scenes from newsreels. On the one hand, they have been seen often enough and, on the other hand, you have to remember that such footage was made as propaganda to influence the audience. These sources do not convey an authentic image of the time. Incidentally, this is also true of material produced by the Allies to some extent. The films from private sources, however, are mostly unfiltered and unadorned. Events are therefore told from the people’s perspective and not described by the top-down view of a controlled newsreel camera. When it came to archive material, we also took extreme care to ensure that the material belonged to the period in question. The pictures accurately convey the events and the feelings of the time. This results in a kind of kaleidoscope, similar to Walter Kempowski's “Sonar” – a collection of autobiographical reports, letters and other documents by those alive during the Second World War. A view of the time is gradually opened up to the viewer.
When did you have the idea to make this film?
The idea had been there for a long time. It was when I left "Spiegel TV" and founded Agenda Media together with Stefan Aust that I wanted to tackle the project. We spoke to Filmförderung Hamburg and developed some initial ideas, but due to a lack of time, we didn’t get around to realising the project. One thing was clear to me from the start: making a comprehensive Hitler biography was going to mean an enormous amount of research and preparation. During my time spent working at N24 (a German TV station), there was no time for such a project. When I started work at Epoche Media, it was clear that the right moment had come. Furthermore, I also found the right partner for the project in Hermann Pölking. Hermann Pölking has an unrivalled ability to bring history to life with pictorial narratives as well as the ability to use archive material to its fullest potential. That said, if I had known at the start just how much work the project was going to be, I might not have been on board. Three years with Hitler is not always nice.
The film relies heavily on archival material. How did you find the films?
At first, we were lucky that Karl Höffkes was very committed to the project and joined the team. This film wouldn't have been possible without access to his unique archive - probably the world's most comprehensive collection of films from the Third Reich. Hermann Pölking was able to use the Saeculum Archive to bring in another, comprehensive source. In addition to that, we had to carry out research all around the world. We use films from over 80 archives in twelve countries. We have preview copies of nearly 1,000 hours of film.
Working with historical film sources is laborious. What challenged you?
Since everyone involved had a wealth of experience in this field, we were sure that we weren’t going to underestimate the task at hand, but we underestimated it drastically! A lot of difficulties came about because we accessed a lot more sources than is usually the case. We also had to remember that they were going to be used for the big screen. It’s kind of okay if the odd scene on TV is of poor quality. It’s not okay in the cinema. We also aspired to meet the quality standards of today’s HD films as much as we could. This is especially important when it comes to younger viewers. For this reason, the material was edited extensively: new scans, restoration, stabilisation, changing the running speed, interlacing and so on.
What were the other challenges?
Selecting the speakers was also difficult. Since we have a variety of quotes in the film, we had plans for more than 350 roles. However, we wanted to avoid having the usual two or three speakers who take turns. The voices needed to fit to the roles – they needed to appear natural. Researching over 120 voice-actors, recording the voice-overs and the creation of 230 roles was really a mammoth task.
Another question about the film’s running time: Who watches a 7½-hour documentary in the cinema?
For us, this is a real cinematic event. Films of this length have recently come into vogue. Ulrike Ottinger's "Chamissos Schatten", for example, is twelve hours long, is shown in three parts on three days and has also found audiences in cinemas. In the long festival version, as we call it, there is enough room to implement the editorial concept, and the result is particularly striking. Viewers can dive in and immerse themselves in the film. The film draws you in, even more so than the shorter version.
Are you planning a film on current issues, or in other words: Why do you always work with a view of the past?
The topic of WER WAR HITLER is, unfortunately, a remarkably contemporary topic. Everyone today should take another look at the events from 1919 to 1939. The parallels are frightening. It seems almost as if Hitler and National Socialism are a kind of blueprint for the populists of our time. Everything that the Putins, Erdogans, Trumps and Dutertes of our world are doing finds its precedent in Hitler. If we have failed to learn from history and take a stand, I see dark times ahead of us.
Finally, the central question: Who was Hitler?
A natural disaster, but a man-made one.