When (allegedly) first discovered in the 1990s, the reels of silent, colour home-movie footage of Hitler and friends enjoying quality time at his Berghof mountain retreat caused something of a sensation. Filmed on a 16mm camera that Hitler had given Eva Braun in 1936, Bowker’s Complete Video Directory of 1995 describes the material excitedly as “[f]ive individual videos of Hitler’s home movies lost for 50 years. Extremely rare footage never before seen. A must for all history buffs!” In slightly more overblown terms, but reflecting a general and hearty, if not exactly healthy, appetite for Hitleriana (the more up-close and personal the better), the Weekly World News of 10 February 1998 called them “Just found! Available on videocassettes for the first time! … Personal close-ups of Adolph [sic] relaxing at home with his mistress Eva and his pals … A shocking portrait of the smiling face of evil.”
The footage then enjoyed a second (or rather third) coming a decade later, when advances in technology allowed Frank Hubner, a Berlin-based sign-language and speech-recognition expert, to furnish the images with sound, recreating the figures’ voices by matching sound recordings to the lip movements and patching the two together. The result was that the smiling face of evil now gained a tongue as well, and we could finally hear the banal chatter of Nazis in their idle moments. Because the hand-held camera required well-lit settings, the footage was mostly filmed on the property’s terrace against a garish Alpine summer-scape that, for all its nth degree of celluloid “reality,” looks like nothing so much as the backdrop of a Bergfilm. As though imbued by the spirit of the clichéd setting, the protagonists spout endless trivialities: at one juncture Adolf teases Eva about her predilection for American films, saying “I hear you didn’t like the film last night. I suppose you’d prefer to see Gone With the Wind!” At another juncture, he chides her jokingly for her frivolous concerns, saying “You talk about some dress that doesn’t fit you! Try having my problems!”
This paper will examine these home movies in terms of their troubling confusion of history and the intimate sphere. As Jaimey Fisher has argued, while amateur footage from the Second World War period provides important historical evidence, the intimacy of the medium can be troubling precisely because it offers “a strong identification with and affective investment in [the protagonists].” Because we are granted “unusual access to the interior life” of those shown, we fall into what can potentially be a dangerous “intimate identification.” This paper will argue that, with these intimate home movie moments, where the camera allows us to penetrate the inner sphere of the Führer himself like never before, and catch him in his most unguarded moments, the object that we might expect to find framed there, is, strangely, utterly displaced the closer we seem to come. The more intimate our encounter with Hitler, resurrected on film, the further we recede from Hitler as historical agent/actor. This paper will also be arguing that the addition of a soundtrack, while no doubt accurately reconstructed, to the home footage of a relaxing Hitler, is merely designed to feed a Hitler industry within popular culture, a consumption of Hitler and Nazi images that is completely divorced from historical understanding, or indeed any wish for it. Inasmuch as this addition of sound, which allegedly makes the reels more real, only unearths banalities, its function cannot be to add to a summa sapientiae about the past. It is merely another digitally enhanced item in a long chain of what Eric Rentschler calls “popularized and commodified, representations of Hitler [that] abound in postmodern mass culture [as] floating signifiers,” feeding, according to Alvin Rosenfield a “fascination that is relentlessly unhistorical” (quoted in Rentschler: 205). As the vapid 300 minutes of Berghof holiday film show, bringing Hitler to life through his home movies (now with sound effects for that extra something!), brings him to life as nothing more than a simulacrum. He is now, quite literally, in fact, as Anna Reading points out, an icon in the most truly modern sense (Zelizer: 332): In the VDUs of the Simon Wiesenthal centre, she notes, his image can be clicked on to retrieve data on Hitler “the man.”
The paper will contrast this most recent redubbing with the first reappropriation of the footage, also with added sound, in Philippe Mora’s controversial Swastika of 1974, arguing that Mora’s film, for all the surrounding controversy, uses sound that is, if not as authentic as that in the Hubner redubbings, then at least intended as an antidote to fascination with the Führer.