Historian's role in new Hitler and Goebbels film helps reveal the legacy of Nazi disinformation

Historian's role in new Hitler and Goebbels film helps reveal the legacy of Nazi disinformation

A University of Aberdeen academic is the historical advisor to the first serious Hitler feature film in two decades. Shot in secret due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, the film seeks to 'understand the manipulative strategies' used to devastating effect by Hitler and Goebbels, by stripping away the lens of their own propaganda through which they are inadvertently still viewed today.

Führer und Verführer (The Führer and the Demagogue), directed and written by Joachim A. Lang, is a dramatisation of the inner workings of Hitler and Goebbels’ disinformation and demagoguery operations. It aims to demask the carefully curated version of the Dictator and his chief propagandist still reproduced endlessly in contemporary documentaries and books as a result of the lack of footage and material untouched by the image they meticulously sought to convey.

Professor Weber says the feature film – to be released early in 2024 – ‘is a vital tool in revealing how demagogues use disinformation and manipulation to exploit times of perceived existential crises, and how in the process democracy frequently dies and darkness returns.’

He said: “In books, newspapers, television and the digital world, we unknowingly and endlessly reproduce visual, audio, and film material created by Goebbels and his fellow propagandists,” he adds.

“Almost all historical footage was staged by Goebbels with the intention of deceiving both the viewers of the time and for posterity. Since we do not have images of what went on behind the scenes, we have to recreate them and this is where a dramatisation like Führer und Verführer can make a real contribution.

“The materials Goebbels created determine to this day how we view the past and the lessons we draw from the past for the future. Our film attempts to deconstruct the images and to provide glimpses behind the facade that have not been seen before.

“It shows the means deployed by Goebbels as he sought to get the population behind Hitler’s criminal aims. We look over Goebbels’ shoulder as he stages his lies.”

Professor Weber, an internationally renowned historian, is Professor of History and International Affairs and Director of the Centre for Global Security and Governance at the University of Aberdeen and Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

His 2010 book Hitler’s First War drew on a wealth of new sources, unravelling the accepted narrative about how Hitler came to be the man he was. Weber built on this with his 2017 work Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi, as well as a 2022 book about the lessons of the death of democracy in 1933 for today. Weber is currently completing a new book on Nazi foreign disinformation warfare in Britain.

Due to the nature of the film, he was involved, in addition to the more traditional tasks of historical advisors to film projects, in the creative process of devising the film.

Professor Weber adds: “We chose to intersperse the film with short blocks of testimony by Holocaust survivors.  We deliberately decided to break the taboo against mixing genres to find an emotionally powerful way of showing the consequences of Hitler and Goebbels’ actions, and in doing so to protect viewers from any feature film temptation of identifying with the protagonists.

“I was touched to hear that one of survivors embraced script writer and director Joachim A. Lang after first viewing the finished film, telling him that we need to understand better the perspective of leading perpetrators to stymie the rise of political extremism that the world once again experiences.”

Talking about the flawed lessons we draw from the past, Weber said: “Goebbels' lies about himself continue to be taken at face value and repeated uncritically. For example, just before he began ranting against Anglo-America he had applied to become Germany correspondent for an American daily newspaper. What we think we know about Goebbels and Hitler actually is frequently what they themselves and Nazi propaganda fed us.

“Anyone who has seen the film will view audiovisual materials from the Third Reich with different eyes – no longer as documentary images but as distortions of reality staged by Goebbels. They will also engage more critically with the reality of images in general and be more vigilant of manipulation by the media, even in the present day.”

Director Joachim A. Lang said: “In order to get closer to reality, we extensively evaluated the sources. The goal was to develop a script in which everything Hitler, Goebbels and the Nazi leaders said was provable. That is an important feature of the film. The way the characters talk reflects how the leading Nazis really talked or similar. The dialogues almost exclusively contain verifiably accurate quotations from a wide variety of sources.

“The film does not show the images officially conveyed by Goebbels, which can also take the form of the uncritical use of newsreels, but the truth behind the facade. The result is a unique, unvarnished look inside the apparatus of power. It is based on the latest research; the film’s advisor is one of the leading experts on the Third Reich: the internationally renowned historian Thomas Weber.”

Führer und Verführer has been produced by Till Derenbach and Michael Souvignier for Zeitsprung Pictures GmbH and Sandra Maria Dujmovic for Südwestrundfunk, who also served as dramaturg. The film is distributed internationally by Beta Film GmbH. Hitler and Goebbels are played by two Austrian actors, Fritz Karl and Robert Stadlober, while Franziska Weisz stars as Magda Goebbels.

Professor Weber also leads a new University of Aberdeen online course examining Hitler, his politicisation and radicalisation, and what his time in power can teach us about the nature of politics today, which is open for registration and begins in January. 

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