'Who Was Hitler': New documentary lets people who knew him speak

Culture

Adolf Hitler as child (ca.1890)

"He's different from all the rest of the family." - Mother Klara Hitler, quoted by August Kubizek.

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Class photo in Linz, 1900/01

"He was definitely talented, albeit also lopsided, and while not violent, he was considered rebellious. He was not hardworking either." - Dr. Eduard Huemer, Hitler's French teacher. (Adolf Hitler is at the top right of the picture.)

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Adolf Hitler self-portrait

"All his relatives considered him to be a no-hoper who shied away from all hard work." - August Kubizek, Adolf Hitler's boyhood friend.

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Hitler as a corporal in the First World War

"I have never uncovered what caused Hitler's fanatical hatred towards Jews. The experience with Jewish officers during the World War could not have contributed much to this." - Fritz Wiedemann, Lieutenant in the List Regiment.

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Commemorating the Beer Hall Putsch (ca. 1929)

"They had only one virtue: obedience. On order, they were to be used for everything, trained to follow the man and capable of anything. Hitler's Brownshirts were recruited from the dissatisfied and unsuccessful, the ambitious, the ones filled with envy and hatred, from all classes - ready for murder and violence." - Carl Zuckmayer, German dramatist.

Culture

Adolf Hitler (1933)

"The people of the upper class want to get close to Hitler. My grandfather had an apt formula for these changeable kind of people: 'You spit in their eyes and they'll ask you if it's raining.' "- Bela Fromm, German-Jewish journalist, January 29, 1932.

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Chancellor Hitler officially takes power from President Hindenburg, 1933

"I was not mistaken for a single moment about the fact that the Nazis were enemies - enemies for me and for all that was dear to me. What I was completely wrong about, however, was what terrible enemies they would be." - Sebastian Haffner, journalist, Memoirs.

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Joseph Goebbels speech, 1936

"I go to the party reception in the old town hall. Huge bustle. I report the situation to the Führer. He decides: 'Withdraw police forces. Let the Jews feel the fury of the people.'"- Joseph Goebbels, diary, 10 November 1938.

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Hitler in Bayreuth (1938)

"I can safely say that before I left for San Francisco, I had learned of the intention of Hitler to destroy incurable patients - not just incurable mental diseases - in the event of a war. As a motive, he said that they were unnecessary eaters." - Fritz Wiedemann, Nazi Party Adjutant to Adolf Hitler until January 19, 1939.

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Hitler on Obersalzberg (undated)

"I am firmly convinced that neither England nor France will enter into a general war." - Adolf Hitler before his army generals on Obersalzberg, August 13, 1939.

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Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler, 1938

"Throughout the war, Adolf Hitler never visited a bombed city." - Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production.

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Adolf Hitler

"I know that many perceived that Hitler had changed after Stalingrad. I didn't see it that way." - Rochus Misch, sergeant in the SS Escort Command of the Führer

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Hitler after the failed assassination attempt in the Wolf's Lair, 1944

"There I saw Hitler, who looked questioningly at my distraught expression. He quietly said, 'Linge, someone has tried to kill me.'" Heinz Linge, Adolf Hitler's valet.

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Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring, 1944

"I know the war is lost. Their superiority is clear. I'd like to shoot myself in the head now. [But] we do not give up. Never. We can go down. But we will take a world with us." - Hitler at the end of December 1944 to his adjutant Nicolaus von Below.

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Newspapers report death of Hitler, 1945

"One feels Hitler's death is just rather pointless now. He should have died some time ago. I wonder how many people comfort themselves with thinking he's frizzling." - Naomi Mitchison, Scottish writer

Endless books, films and TV series have traced the life of Hitler. But filmmaker Hermann Pölking shines a new spotlight on the dictator via the frank testimony of Hitler's contemporaries. Here's what some said.

"All his relatives considered him to be a no-hoper who shied away from all hard work," said boyhood friend August Kubizek of Adolf Hitler. "He was the darling of his mother and adored her the same," commented Hitler's Jewish family doctor. "If Adolf wanted something, he got it - mostly at the expense of others," noted sister Paula Wolf.

These telling impressions of a young Adolf Hitler are among countless quotes from contemporaries of the dictator that make up the much-anticipated documentary, "Wer war Hitler" (Who Was Hitler). The seven-and-a-half-hour TV series premiered this week at the Munich Film Festival. 

Using no narrator or talking heads, and sparse additional information, writer and director Hermann Pölking retraces the life of Hitler - from his birth in 1889 in upper Austria to his suicide in Berlin 1945 - entirely from statements made by companions, enemies, victims and observers.

Historische Aufnahmen - Wer war Hitler

The festival version of the film is 7.5 hours long

Pölking catalogued 120 archives in 14 countries and reviewed 850 hours of footage in an effort to create a unique, up-close portrayal of the evolution of the 20th century's most infamous historical figure. The hundreds of quotes were recorded by 125 speakers.

A new perspective  

At over seven hours, the film is extremely long and demanding - which is why a shortened three-hour cinema version is planned. But the endurance required is rewarded through a fascinating montage of rarely-seen archival film material.

Historische Aufnahmen - Wer war Hitler

"Hitler Youth" - archive footage used in "Who was Hitler"

Pölking has dedicated himself to such monumental projects for decades, including his 12-part series from 2005, "Die Deutschen von 1815 bis heute" (The Germans from 1815 to the Present). He began research for "Who Was Hitler" in 2014 by initially searching more than 800 books for suitable quotations related to Hitler before delving into archives around the world to find related film footage and photos. 

"Who Was Hitler" follows the same principle as Pölking's book of the same name (published in 2016), which includes 17 collections of quotes forming 17 chapters that each deal with a part of Hitler's life.

Although the footage used is taken from the time portrayed (with a maximum deviation of two years), the imagery often only has an incidental connection to the actual quotes.

Contrast and irony

This technique gives the film some memorable but also questionable moments - for example, shots of naked women combined with quotations related to Hitler's body.

Adolf Hitler und Eva Braun

They did not appear as a couple in public: Adolf Hitler and companion Eva Braun

But other scenes successfully utilize such contrast to bring out some telling irony, like when boys play with toy soldiers as a quotation is read in which Hitler promises that "Germany will never break the peace of its own accord." It's also oddly fitting when the outbreak of war is accompanied by footage of two newly-weds canoeing on the Oder River. 

Related Subjects

Much of the film material is horrifying: People starving in death camps in Warsaw; piles of corpses in concentration camps; Jewish people being shot to death in a line. Even more cruelty comes via scenes of a family idyll, a scene bursting with life as children play in a garden that is backgrounded by a quote from Primo Levi recalling his journey to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Auschwitz-Wachmann

Entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp

"All took leave from life in the manner which most suited them," said Levi. "Some praying, some deliberately drunk, others lustfully intoxicated for the last time. The mothers stayed up to prepare the food for the journey with tender care, and washed their children and packed their luggage; and at dawn the barbed wire was full of children's washing hung out in the wind to dry. Nor did they forget the diapers, the toys, the cushions and the hundreds other small things which mothers remember and which children always need. Would you not do the same? If you and your child were going to die tomorrow, would you not give him to eat today?”

A great liar

The filmmaker almost completely avoids showing crowds screaming for Hitler at one of the latter's many mass rallies. Overall, the film is surprisingly noise-free: the silent footage is discreetly overdubbed with music as Hitler's populist chest-thumping falls into the background and Hitler's true self shines through.

Pölking's personal conclusion on Hitler is predictably scathing: "Hitler was a great liar, a very talented actor who lied without inhibitions; a man capable of self-suggestion, from which he would build his willpower - the most dangerous combination you could imagine."