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Hitler film made in Slovakia as Germany resists production of Nazi dramas

The German filmmakers behind a forthcoming major feature film about Hitler had to shoot it in secret, due to “resistance” in Germany against dramas “in which Hitler takes centre-stage for fear that the audience will start identifying with the protagonist”, according to its historical adviser.

The film, titled Führer und Verführer (Führer and Demagogue), was turned down for public funding in Germany and was made instead in Bratislava.

In the pursuit of accuracy, Thomas Weber, professor of history at Aberdeen University and an internationally-renowned academic, was appointed as its historical adviser.

He said understandable concerns about humanising demagogues responsible for one of the darkest chapters of human history. “For this reason, there are hardly any films about Goebbels, Hitler and other demagogues in which they are not cast as comic figures or merely appear as minor characters in supporting roles.” The 2004 drama, Downfall, focussed only on a “short snapshot” of Hitler’s life – his final days.

Weber added: “If we want to thwart the demagogues of our own time, film and television productions must abandon the long-standing, though entirely understandable, reluctance to turn the spotlight on Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels and Stalin.

“We can only tear off the masks and see them as they really were and how they were able to succeed if we place them centre-stage on film.”

He argued, for example, that photographs and film footage used in most documentaries about the Third Reich tend to use propaganda material produced by the Nazis and therefore unwittingly reproduce Goebbels’s propaganda.

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The new film focusses on an information warfare in which Goebbels, arguably history’s greatest manipulator of the masses and the father of fake news, created rousing images of flag-waving crowds and anti-Semitic films that prepared the people for the mass murder of the Jews.

Führer und Verführer, which will be released in cinemas next year, stars Fritz Karl as Hitler and Robert Stadlober as Goebbels.

It is directed by Joachim Lang, who said: “The film shows the perpetrators as human beings, with all the attributes of evil. Only the fictional form allows proximity to the characters and their mendacious depravity.”

He added: “If such criminals are portrayed cinematically solely as one-dimensional marginal figures or even as screaming buffoons, we cannot understand them or their deeds. Nor can we draw any lessons for the present.”

The film takes the viewer backstage, making them more wary of the power of images and manipulative strategies as they watch Goebbels create his deceptions and distortions of reality in conceiving and rehearsing speeches.

Lang spoke of the film’s emphasis on accuracy: “The dialogue almost exclusively contains verifiably accurate quotations from a wide variety of sources.”

The drama is all the more powerful because it interweaves fictionalised scenes of the main protagonists and their Nazi henchmen with archival footage and the testimonies of actual Holocaust survivors. They include Margot Friedlander, 101, whose parents and brother were murdered in the Auschwitz death camp.

Lang said: “What the victims say is both the terrible reality and a stark warning. They survived and provide us with testimony that they have the last word.”

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After a preview screening, the survivors were reportedly deeply affected. One of them remained silent for several minutes before hugging the director, telling him that she wished such a film had been made ten or 20 years ago, to stop the rise of radical right-wing populist groups.

Lang said that examining the past is all the more crucial when far-right parties are in government, when anti-Semitic acts of violence are increasing and when the crimes of the Third Reich are being trivialised to an ever greater extent: “For me, the sentence of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, with which our film begins and ends, holds true: “It happened so it can happen again. That is the core of what we have to say.”