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Fire and Fuhrer: Why Hollywood Is So Focused on Adolf Hitler These Days (Guest Blog)

”Even if it [Nazism] is not lived or felt history anymore, Hitler and it has become an all-purpose insult and stand-in for evil,“ author Thomas Doherty notes

It may be too flippant to say Adolf Hitler is having yet another moment. But there is ample evidence, at least in the cultural world. Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell are making the satire “Jojo Rabbit,”  in which writer-director-star Taika Waititi takes on the Fuhrer’s persona. At the same time, devoted fans of “The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon’s original series that imagines what America would have been like had the Allied powers lost World War II and Hitler became a true world leader, are anxiously awaiting the official release date of the third season.

“Hitler’s Hollywood,” a new documentary, from filmmaker Rudiger Suchsland, is drawing a lot of attention (“One can’t watch…and not think of the world today,” wrote RogerEbert.com critic Godfrey Cheshire in his review of the film. “Mein Kampf,” a play by George Tabori that opened earlier this spring in the German town of Konstanz and deals with Hitler’s youth, set off a media firestorm when it offered audience members free admission on opening night if they agreed to wear swastikas. Fortunately, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that not one theatergoer did so.

But Hitler and his history are, in fact, at a critical juncture: Those whose families experienced Nazism are dwindling in numbers; and a recent poll revealed that 66 percent of millennials cannot identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp. Another 22 percent said they hadn’t heard of the Holocaust or were not sure they had heard of it — a horrifyingly high percentage when you think about it. In other words, those who urge us never to forget are watching that happen.

So it is strangely hopeful news that young people born well after the end of World War II are watching the “The Man in The High Castle,” both for its young, attractive stars and its haunting take on what could have been. Season one of the show was Amazon’s most-streamed original series when it debuted in 2015 and had 8 million viewers as of early 2017. Given that Prime caters exactly to those millennial preferences for convenient online delivery and shipping, we can guess a good number of those eyeballs were on the younger side. (One survey estimates that 39 percent of Amazon Prime subscribers are between 18 and 34.)

One scholar keenly in touch with perhaps this morbid curiosity among the younger set is Noah Isenberg, director of the Screen Studies Program at the New School in New York, who teaches a popular class entitled “Berlin-New York-Hollywood.”

“Students are more attuned to these issues [refugees, nativism] today,” Isenberg said. “And they look to the Nazi period as a means of understanding the deeper roots of a culture and ideology that otherwise seemed far removed from America.”

As Quartz’s Ashley Rodriquez astutely pointed out in her 2016 take on season two of “High Castle,” season one debuted in 2015 when “same-sex marriage had just been ruled legal, the U.S. had a progressive black president, and neo-Nazism was the farthest thing from most Americans’ minds.” Season two, she observed, debuted amidst the rise of the alt-right, churches being vandalized with swastikas and shouts of “Hail Trump!” and Nazi salutes swarming the internet in a viral video clip released by The Atlantic. In this context, she wrote, “The alternate reality manifested in the show doesn’t seem so far off.”

So there is an undeniable instinct to point to current leaders and the tumultuous political climate as reason for watching and the creative impetus. It’s as if Hollywood is screaming through its powerful global megaphone to pay attention to the past.

In his 2017 book “Hitler in Los Angeles,” USC professor Steven J. Ross tells the formerly untold story of how Hitler sent cronies to Hollywood to infiltrate the studios and film unions, as well as assassinate film stars and (primarily Jewish) studio heads. And Thomas Doherty, author of 2015’s “Hitler and Hollywood,” says: “Even if it [Nazism] is not lived or felt history anymore, Hitler and it has become an all-purpose insult and stand-in for evil.”

In the popular Netflix series “Babylon Berlin,” Hitler’s name has only been mentioned once so far, but as Ariana Romero of Refinery29.com noted, “his monstrous shadow hangs over the proceedings like a portent of the atrocities to come.”

Perhaps that’s why the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel on which “The Man in the High Castle” is based still holds water, as does the late Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” in which Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency and befriends all things Nazi. To quote Rodriquez on “High Castle,” “It suggests that the evil that was embodied by the Nazis was not defeated with them, but lives on, omnipresent, in our daily choices.”

So we can’t simply point the finger at Hollywood for our latest cultural obsession. Some things, like evil, are evergreen fodder for the imagination.

One key question “Jojo Rabbit” may answer: Can we laugh at any of this when confronted with it on our screens and during this politically charged time?

With the distance that history provides, younger generations may be able to find surprising humor in this darkness. One of the films Isenberg shows in his class is “To Be or Not to Be,” a screwball comedy that took on Hitler — while the story was happening (1942). The movie was considered too close to the bone at the time — as was Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator(1940). Both were box office bombs but, in hindsight, are considered classics. By the time Mel Brooks gave us “The Producers” in 1967, we were apparently ready to laugh at the idea of “Springtime for Hitler.”

But should we? Are we empowered more when we laugh at evil straight in the face? Or devote our attention elsewhere?

Christina Campodonico contributed reporting to this blog.

Mary Murphy is magazine and TV journalist and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. Michele Willens is a New York-based writer and NPR theater commentator. They are writing a book on the history of entertainment journalism.